YEREVAN, Armenia — Seven years ago Milena separated from her husband. Although she still loved him, they had difficulty communicating. She was fed up with the physical and emotional violence he inflicted, as well as the familial silence surrounding it. Her mother-in-law’s interference in their lives, and her husband’s deference to her, were another source of the conflicts that finally caused Milena to divorce her husband.
Stories like Milena’s are not uncommon. Almost one in ten Armenian women are subjected to occasional or regular beatings by a husband or partner, according to a UNFPA-supported study of 2,800 women. One in every four is subjected to psychological violence, and 1 in 30 to sexual violence.
What is unusual is that Milena and her husband have addressed the issues and decided to reunite and have a child, in large part due to their work with a priest who is part of a UNFPA-supported project. UNFPA has been working for several years with a network of faith-based organizations, which have a long history of delivering crucial social services and making a difference in people’s lives.
Partnering with the Armenian Church
A joint project between UNFPA and the Armenian Inter-Church Charitable Round Table Foundation of the World Council of Churches has encouraged Armenian priests to speak about issues related to gender equality, reproductive health, and population and development - with an emphasis on promoting the active involvement of priests in combating violence within the family. The project trained clergy to conduct awareness-raising sessions on gender-based violence gender inequality, which is considered a root cause of this violence, in their communities.
Nearly all -- 95 per cent – of Armenians living belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church. For many centuries the church has played a leading role in fostering education and spiritual values in Armenian society. As a trusted institution, it can promote and disseminate new knowledge and information on sensitive subjects such as gender-based violence, within communities. Having the Church speak talk openly about sensitive issues has also encouraged community members like Milena and her family to share their private concerns and seek support from the priests.
Awareness-raising meetings have helped identify families at risk and provided an opportunity for clergy to work with family members on a one-on-one basis. In one case, a priest helped a woman who had been turned out of her house to reclaim her property and family rights by referring her to the proper legal entity. She also received psychological counseling. Recently an awareness-raising exhibition titled ‘Violence through the Eyes of Children’ was organized by the clergy to display the drawings of high school students who attended related talks by the priests.
Milena finds support in addressing violence in the home
These awareness-raising sessions helped address and eventually heal the violence in Milena’s family. “During an awareness-raising session given in my parish, I spoke about God’s fair justice and eternal life, love in the family, violence, and peace that one may reach through constantly feeling the presence of the Hand of God,” says Father Gevorg Kertikashyan, one of more than 40 priests of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic dioceses who participated in the project. A few days after the session, Milena sought Father Kertikashyan for a private consultation. After several meetings with Milena, her former husband and other family members also requested to meet with the priest to address the violence that taken place, as well as the culture of silence and denial that allowed it to perpetuate.
Over time the encounters became more frequent. “Due to the many prayers and discussions between them, they joined together again peacefully as husband and wife and choose to have a child due to their faith and love of God,” said Father Kertikashyan.
Ending gender-based violence requires an understanding of the cultural context in which it arises. This project demonstrated that the strong engagement of religious leaders can make a crucial difference in a religious community. Once the subject was broached, community members have also felt more empowered to seek out the counseling of the Church for support on domestic violence-related issues. “Trust and readiness to listen to one another and willingness to understand each other’s language has laid the foundation for successful cooperation between UNFPA and faith-based organizations within the country, particularly on gender-based violence prevention and awareness-raising,” says Garik Hayrapetyan, UNFPA Armenia Assistant Representative.
— Mher Manukyan