"Unfortunately we do not have a law to protect women from domestic violence", Lara Aharonyan


Interview with the Head of "Women's Resource Center" Lara Aharonyan

How it happened that you arrived from Canada to Armenia for inhabitancy and decided to devote yourself to the issues of protection of women's rights?  

Before moving to Armenia I was visiting the country every summer as a volunteer with the organization «Yerkir ev mshakuyt» (Country and Culture) and mainly working in Karabakh- in Shushi and nearby villages. During my free time I was talking to women about their life, families, and their conditions and perceived what the attitude towards women in Armenia was. I told to myself that if one day I move to Armenia, one thing that I wish to improve here is the situation with women's rights.  

How did you found Women's Resource Center?

In Canada I volunteered at the local women's Center and have learned many things that I wish to share and apply. I got in touch with the Sociology Department of the Yerevan State University. Gohar Shahnazaryan with whom we have started the Women's Center was a PHD student there. She was providing with the information on women's rights in Armenia and I was sharing my experience. We have started to develop the project and I arrived to Armenia within the frames of that project.

At the beginning the Dean of the Faculty of Sociology allocated a premise to us. Our first target group was comprised of women, students of the University.  We were organizing discussions on the rights of women and gender equality issues. Afterwards, based on the discussions we developed a curriculum for 5-day training. We conducted the training almost every month and many people wanted to take part.    

We worked for two years voluntarily. Then number of people who were interested in our work increased and in 2005 we decided to register ourselves officially to expand our activities. We started to apply for small grants, developed our organization, founded a library, and purchased computers.  In 2005 we quit the University and the circle of our beneficiaries expanded.

What particular rights of women have you worked for?

In the first stage we worked for protection of young women's rights, mainly focused on the sexual health and issues of women's discrimination.  I mean that before we start talking about women's rights from different perspectives, we should think about particular personal rights: about their body, about their rights in their families. If you do not enjoy right to do whatever you want with your body, how will you enjoy rights in other realms? Now we have a club of sexual and reproduction rights.  

Unfortunately, there is no sexual education in Armenia at schools, kinder gardens, homes, universities. Many young ladies suffer because of the lack of knowledge. Because of the lack of awareness they face different problems and risks-undesired pregnancy because of social and health reasons, infections etc.  This all is a result of the lack of information. We are trying to fill this gap by organizing awareness raising events.

There is a hot line for victims of sexual violence functioning within the organization. Who calls you and what are the issues they raise?

We receive calls from women and girls who were subjected to sexual violence or harassment at the work or educational institution. There are also calls on gender inequality problems in the family. We do not refuse to help and try to do whatever we can. We provide with free consultation by phone and if the callers want, we invite them to our Center where we have a special room.  Now we also have a lawyer. In the past, we directed our beneficiaries to other organization when legal issues arose. 

If it is necessary, we go with them to the medical doctor, psychologist in order to prevent them from feeling lonely. Of course, we ensure confidentiality. If you are subjected to sexual violence, you do not want to tell anyone, you are scared, it is a taboo, you are trying to avoid shame and as a result you are lonely. Especially in Armenia the first glance is directed to a woman: "What have you done for that to happen? What you wore? Why were there at that time?" Instead of looking at the perpetrator of the violence and blame him, people blame women. No matter when and where is the woman, even if she is naked, no one has a right to subject her to violence.   These questions are improper and very often policemen pose such questions. Frequently we receive calls from women who called to the Police and where convinced not to submit a complaint or take it away. So we go to the Police with the women for not allowing improper questions or disrespectful attitude. We protect rights of women in vulnerable situation. Of course, it is a choice of woman to go alone or with us.

In your opinion, what are the key issues of the women's rights?

Firstly, there is a lot of violence in Armenia. I am talking not only about the physical violence, but also about psychological pressure for example at home. It is a tool to control a woman, to prevent her from certain things. Women are explained they should not do certain things, do not go to politics, it is not a woman's business etc.  This is the issue that should be solved.

Unfortunately, we do not have a law to protect women from domestic violence. The situation in Armenia puts a woman to socially depend from the family. There is no any external structure to help a woman. For example, in other countries if you have a problem in the family, you can divorce and be sure that will not stay alone. The state will support you, it will give you a shelter, financial aid to raise your children. While in Armenia, if the woman leaves the family, she may stay alone. Because of the absence of alternatives, she stays in the family and continues to be subjected to violence.

That's why I think that career is very important. It is essential for our girls and women to be independent financially and economically. This will help them to stand on their own feet and say: "it is not possible to treat me this way". We have a career corner at the Center to promote women to grow in the career, to find a job, to write a CV, to present oneself during the interview; they also learn languages, computer free of charge in order to get a promotion in their career.     

Many women get a good education but cannot work because they get married and are not allowed to work. At the beginning girls depend on their parents, and then they depend on their husbands. They cannot be independent and use their potential fully because there are gender obstacles, roles of men and women are strongly determined.

Do you mean that our national mentality frequently hinders a woman to enjoy her rights?

Yes, it is very important to change the stereotypes on the roles of man and woman because these stereotypes are harmful for both. Men are told they should serve in the army, find a good job and provide the family and this is a heavy burden for one. Women are told to stay home, raise kids and keep the house. Who said that all these people want to live this way? Sure, it is possible that some women want to stay at home without working. This is also their right. However, it should be their choice and not imposed by others.

What the Women's Resource Center does to break the stereotypes and what are the results?

We are approaching slowly to the changes. I think it is right for Armenia. We are working continuously for awareness. We work with people who come to the Center and also do public service announcements or conduct actions to involve more people. We go to regions of Armenia.  It takes time, but I see changes already. It is very slow but there is a difference. Especially in Yerevan, there are families where man and woman treat each other differently.   

There are two different ways to achieve the difference-slowly or very rapidly which just shocks the society. This shock is the reason why people talk about the "karmir xndzor" (red apple) street action so far.  

 "Funeral of Red Apple" street action and recent "Vagina Monologues" performance made a lot of noise. What was your goal?

You know it is kind of ridiculous to have such a tradition as "red apple". Maybe not for Yerevan but for other regions of Armenia it is still an important tradition. We do not see any sense of that tradition. If it is just a formal thing, then ok, but if it is a symbol to show off that a woman cannot make independent decisions regarding her body, it is a violation of human rights and it is discrimination. Because of that tradition many families face serious problems especially in villages.

I do not say, "Let all women have premarital sexual relations". People frequently misunderstand. If a woman wants to have sexual relations she has a right for that. If she wants to maintain her virginity it is also her right. A woman should make her own choice. No one is entitled to say, "You should keep your virginity, because there is a tradition of so called "red apple" ".

As an Armenian woman I think it is shameful to keep this tradition. Women just like children are being told what to do with their body. And it creates a situation when women restore their virginity by surgical means. Why a woman should do such things?

Interview by Mary Alexanyan