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Renewed Optimism for Women’s Rights in Armenia and Georgia

Eastern Europe, Featured

By Cheryl Thomas

I recently traveled to Armenia and the Georgia, two countries bordering and near Russia.  A  familiar theme emerged in my conversations with friends and colleagues.  Just as dangerous bullies terrorize women in their private lives to maintain control, autocratic leaders terrorize their neighbors.  

And a related theme – Russia’s brutal aggression seems to be energizing human rights activism. The activists I know understand that all forms of oppression are deeply connected.  I was struck by the enduring passion of those working to pass stronger laws addressing gender based violence.  

When I traveled to Armenia in 2015, there was so much resistance to the country’s first domestic violence law that those advocating for it received death threats–a common tactic globally to silence women’s human rights activists. 

When the domestic violence law finally passed in 2017, it was hard to celebrate.  Women’s rights leaders were discouraged and angry at the compromised  language.  The law was weak, offering little support to survivors and perpetuating messages of impunity for violent offenders. If signed into law, the amendments proposed today would solidify Armenia’s commitment to women’s safety, and they reflect women’s persistence in claiming their human rights.  

This tenacity reflects a global trend, as women everywhere face historic threats to their autonomy and safety – and refuse to be silent.

In Georgia too, strong advocacy by local women’s rights leaders continues to push lawmakers and legal system stakeholders to improve gender based violence laws and their enforcement. One proposed amendment would significantly strengthen criminal sexual assault laws, if it passes.

As countries formerly under Soviet influence, anxiety grows in Armenia and Georgia that they will be the next to be invaded. I heard a need to draw closer to the West, and know that to do so, they need to be in line with the European Union and United States’ human rights standards. In the realm of women’s rights, a driving force for human rights advocates in these small nations is The Council of Europe treaty, named the `Istanbul Convention’ that provides detailed guidance for countries to address forms of gender based violence.

Representing Global Rights for Women, I was invited by the US embassies in both countries to speak with and train legal system stakeholders to enforce women’s human rights laws.  

In Armenia, I was honored to spend time with a passionate parliamentarian working to advance the amendments to strengthen the domestic violence law.   We agreed that a provision that currently  allows a violent offender to have one warning before any consequences essentially gives him a “free” assault.  We agreed that this sends a terrible message about women’s right to live free from violence.  Also, we discussed the need for a longer term order for protection that would allow the victim to take steps to be safe.  The most dangerous time for a domestic violence survivor is when they have challenged the offender’s power.

I was thrilled to see the language of coercive control outlined in detail in the proposed amendments in Armenia.  Coercive controlling behavior is so commonly used to abuse women and is a flag for a very dangerous offender. For years, when working with partners who were writing their country’s first domestic violence laws on, I would explain the pitfalls of using the term ‘psychological violence’ to identify the pattern of abusive, demeaning, intimidating behaviors that offenders so often used. A concept first conceived by American Evan Stark, the language of ‘coercive control’ allows legal and law enforcement systems to identify the terrorizing acts that accompany the physical assault and more to effectively hold dangerous men accountable. 

In trainings with police, prosecutors and probation officers, I heard the same concerns I always do about whether a women’s conduct can justify men’s violent behavior, with questions such as “what if she was sleeping with someone else?” My consistent response: women have a human right to be free from violence and that should be clearly written in the law and enforced by our justice systems.  

I will never forget a judge in Morocco who was indignant that local advocates were proposing a law against marital rape.  He felt he had the right to sexually access his wife no matter what. His perspective: her consent is not an issue, that’s what she agreed to when she got married. Globally, this is not uncommon. 

The perception that women often lie about sexual assault is the primary argument of those parliamentarians who oppose stronger sexual assault laws in the Republic of Georgia, and elsewhere.  This perceived rampant lying is a myth. In fact the opposite is true — most rapes go unreported. Great courage is required for a woman to publicly accuse her offender and be exposed to the disrespect and danger that reporting so often involves.  Countries commonly have perjury laws, but some try to put additional perjury penalties in domestic violence and sexual assault laws – perpetuating the trope that women cannot be believed. 

In Armenia, when I was speaking to students at Yerevan State University, I was asked how we overcome these entrenched attitudes and move forward. My response is always, no one sector cannot do it alone.  It’s not enough to have laws in place and for the police to make arrests.  Critically important is immediate safety for survivors through coordination between emergency services, police who respond with respect, prosecutors who will pursue criminal charges, judges who will issue strong sentences for violence, and a sea change in thinking about women’s equality.   

I was particularly encouraged by my conversations with participants in a program that supports women leaders in Armenia. They know that there are so many other laws that undermine women’s freedom and make them more vulnerable to violence, such as property ownership and marriage and child custody laws.  Women often live with their husband’s families and cannot leave because they have no economic power. 

Having worked globally for more than 30 years to ensure women’s human right to freedom from violence.  I was hugely inspired by my recent visit to the Caucasus. In the face of intense global backlash against women’s human rights and human rights in general, accompanied by brutal national leaders at power, there is energy and passion for the dignity of all humans that simply does not abate.      

Cheryl Thomas is the Founder and Executive Director of Global Rights for Women.