Thursday, June 9, 2011

When We Don't Speak the Same Language

At the roundtable on sexual violence against women in Armenia yesterday, listening to co-founder and executive director of the Women’s Resource Center of Armenia (WRCA) Lara Aharonian talk, followed by remarks by deputy head of the Department for Crimes Against the Individual of the RA General Prosecutor’s Office Artur Davtyan and finally, deputy head of the Armenian Police Department of Juvenile Affairs Artur Vardanyan, I came to a very simple conclusion — we don't speak the same language.

We all seem to be talking about the same thing and sorta-kinda saying the same things, but not really. While Lara was speaking about public perception of sexual violence, gender stereotypes and lack of resources in Armenia to support survivors of all kinds of abuse (and waiting till the end of her remarks to start throwing around some numbers), the two Arturs were, understandably on their guard, praising the work that their respective state agencies have done and apparently continue to do.

Photo by Liana Aghajanian
Neither of the representatives of the state agencies actually addressed the social, cultural concerns Lara raised — but then can you blame them? What did we expect them to say? For one thing, the fact that they were there meant at least that they were sympathetic to the issues raised — or that they felt the need to show that they were sympathetic. Of course they would cite articles from Armenia’s criminal code that charge perpetrators of sex-based crimes (Articles 138 through 142) and of course they would be explain their work in more detail, what they’ve done, what’s involved, what role they can play, because after all, we must understand, their job is not easy.

But what these two men couldn’t see — and interesting to note that the state agencies were represented by men while the NGO working to address the same issues was represented by a woman — what they couldn’t see is the human factor. The larger, societal, macro issue reflected in the micro day-to-day of our lives as women in this country, in this society, in this world. PINK Armenia president Mamikon Hovsepyan tried to at least draw attention to this by asking the men to put themselves in the woman’s shoes, think for a minute what it must be like… alas, I think the experience was lost on them.

One of the participants at the roundtable asked whether police would intervene in a domestic violence situation if the woman in the household was not the one who came forward herself, but, say, for example, a concerned neighbor called the police. Both Arturs responded in turn (it was hard to recall who said what, though the one from the general prosecutor’s office was more eager and forthcoming) that yes, police would investigate the incident; however, they could not actually launch criminal proceedings without the survivor coming forth herself.  Which begs the question: Is there no legal obligation by police to intervene (i.e. in the interest of public safety) regardless of whether a victim (and I use the term here as it is understood in the judicial system) has come forth or not? Is there such a precedent in other countries?

The representatives, in my opinion, also did not effectively address the oft-stated complaint by NGO representatives and human rights activists that penalties for sex-based crimes in Armenia are quite lenient. Artur Davtyan stated that many factors are taken into consideration when determining the penalty for a sex offender, explaining that legal battles can be quite complex and proving that a crime occurred in such cases can be very difficult — not that this helped any of us feel any better. Neither did it show that he was viewing the situation from the perspective of the survivor. But again I ask, what did we expect? He was just doing his job.

And that is what frightens me. Even the well-meaning, well-intentioned people working in state agencies (if the two Arturs can be represented as typical examples) don’t reallly get it. They think they are doing all they can, but they are doing only all that which is within the limits of their job description and nothing more. While NGO representatives and human rights activists are fighting tooth and nail for the rights of victims, not only in cases of sexual abuse, but in many, many other areas too.

Photo by Liana Aghajanian
One final note about Lara (pictured, far left): she was a beacon of peace and patience. Somehow ending up between the two men (a quick shuffle of chairs led to this arbitrary arrangement), she was quiet, but strong, letting participants take the lead to speak up and raise their concerns. I got the feeling that she’d raised these concerns enough times and addressed these two state agencies (the general prosecutor’s office and the police) on enough occasions to know their language well.

And though I had the impression that civil society representatives and state agencies do not speak the same language and so cannot see eye-to-eye, Lara seemed to, at least to me, appear hopeful. When Artur Davtyan made an offer for his office to work together with the WRCA, Lara accepted. I guess in trying to find a common language you have to start somewhere.

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