‘It is clear the children will suffer’
In the Armenian capital Yerevan, nine-year-old Hakob and six-year-old Gevorg are living a nightmare.
Over the past 19 months, as their country grappled with the pandemic, and then the 2020 Karabakh War, their parents’ rocky relationship slid from tense to violent.
The crisis brewed through the lockdown, when their parents and grandmother were forced to stay at home, together. The boys’ lives changed the day when their father, drunk and angry, started to drag their mother through the house by the hair.
The youngest, Gevorg, tried to free her, pulling at his father’s hands and crying. Hakob, already accustomed to the fighting, watched.
Eventually the police came and their mother, Gayane, was able to get a divorce and a restraining order against her ex. While the boys are with their mother now, their fate is uncertain: their father is not permitted to see them or their mother but he is fighting for custody.
Advocates for children’s and women’s rights in Armenia warn that the country’s main tool to protect children like Hakob and Gorg, the 2017 Law on the Prevention of Domestic Violence, is falling short, leaving children and adults vulnerable to abuse.
The law clearly defines what kind of support the state should provide to victims of domestic violence and obliges the government to establish shelters, provide temporary financial assistance to abuse survivors and adopt a rehabilitation program for abusers.
But children’s advocates like lawyer Nona Galstyan argue that the pandemic, and then the war, made it clear that the government is not fulfilling its obligations.
The government’s response to the law, she said, has been “half baked.”
Galstyan noted that the fact that the law was adopted and some mechanisms were introduced raised people’s awareness about domestic abuse—which is good. But the instruments foreseen in the law have not been fully implemented, and the last 19 months have shown that more tools and mechanisms are needed.
“We do not have a specialized police officer, a specialized judge, a specialized civil servant who are directly involved in domestic violence cases,” Galstyan noted.
“This should be solved through permanent training as well as the creation of purely specialized bodies. In other words, the state must intervene comprehensively here, initiate systemic change, but the state went through half-baked interventions, chose an intermediate solution, and the results correspond to it."
Mira Antonyan, director of the FAR Children's Support Center, agreed that the country needs better response mechanisms—particularly to deal with people who have abused their partners or children.
“I would like it to be a mechanism for responding to domestic violence in general, not just a mechanism for violence against women. Today we do not have mechanisms to work with the perpetrators,” she noted, adding that men can also be victims of violence and, regardless of who the victim is and who is the abuser, the state needs to address all the parties involved.
Zaruhi Hovhannisyan, the public relations officer at the Coalition Against Violence Against Women, added that the government has not fulfilled some of the basic obligations of the 2017 law.
"Because there is no state shelter yet, there are no package programs and the state often provides lump sums to victims of domestic violence so they treat any medical problems caused by the violence,” she said. “The burden of long-term support falls on NGOs.”
Specialists are warning that the need for support is growing: as the country continues to deal with the pandemic and the aftermath of the war, the impact on children is mounting.
"The level of general distress is high, it is clear that children must suffer from it,” Antonyan said.
“After any crisis, whether it is an earthquake, an epidemic or a war, the first victims are the children… It is a shock that affects all families: strong families get weaker, weak families break up and children come to us from weak families, from broken families.”
She noted that more and more children are being abandoned at the center. Currently, there are 32 children at FAR Children’s Support Center, 28 of whom are five years old and younger, she said.
Hovhannisyan said the coalition has also received more calls for help via its hotline.
"In 2019 we had about 5,000 phone calls a year; this year there were already 3,000 in the first half of the year. Therefore, we can assume that the calls to the hotline are growing and the reason for that, of course, was last year's shock,” she said.
Other organizations, including the police and the Ombudsman’s Office, have also reported increased reports about abuse in families.
In its 2020 report, the Office of the Human Rights Defender of the Republic of Armenia recorded an increase in cases of domestic violence especially against women, children and the elderly caused by the pandemic.
"In 2019, 91 applications-complaints on domestic violence were submitted to the Defender's Office, in 2020 it received 127 applications-complaints. Overall, the number of complaints has increased by about 39.6 percent over the same period," the report said. In addition, it is reported that in seven of the received complaints, children witnessed domestic violence.
The increased calls are a sign people are aware of the law and the help police can provide, according to Arthur Vardanyan, the deputy head of the Department for Prevention of Juvenile Crime and Domestic Violence of the General Department of Public Security of the RA Police.
He said in 2020, the police registered 1311 abusers and 574 in the first half of 2021. While the pandemic affected some of the agency’s work, “the public is aware that the law on the prevention of domestic violence is working, they can receive support… I think that now the law has come into force, many people understand that the police, together with other bodies, provide possible assistance within their functions."
But Galstyan, who deals with crimes against the interests of the family and the child, argues the increase in calls is due to the fact the situation has gotten worse, not that the government’s response is better.
“The increase was due to the fact that the perpetrators had the opportunity to stay indoors with the victims of violence. Naturally, when the victim is more accessible to the perpetrator, he/she is more vulnerable, which intensifies the violence…In the past, of course, the response to violence was not effective, but especially in the post-war period, I can say that human rights, the problems of violence, are generally considered secondary by the state,” she said. “The fact is that this issue has been more or less abandoned…there are no signs that previous experience will be taken into account or measures will be taken.”