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Armenian women's groups seek increased penalty for sexual assault and rape

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 17 May 2011 18:00 GMT
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NEW YORK , May 17 (TrustLaw)--Levon Avagian, a teacher at Nubarashen special needs school in Armenia, was convicted in May 2010 and sentenced to two years in prison for sexually abusing five students who were minors. The Court of Appeals increased Avagian's sentence to the three-year maximum allowed by the law. But Armenian women’s rights advocates say that's not enough: they seek to increase this penalty and make other amendments to laws related to sexual assault and rape in a country that still has no statutes on its books related to gender-based violence and discrimination.

In response to the high profile Nubarashen case, the Women’s Resource Center Armenia organized a special working group of experts in June 2010 to draft amendments to the Armenian criminal code to ensure rape and sexual assault are classified and punished on the same level as other serious crimes.

‘We were supporting the victims and ensuring civil society’s involvement and media coverage of the (Nubarashen) trial to make sure that everything would be fair. At the end the perpetrator got three years which was the maximum based on the law. So the problem was also the weakness of the law, and it needed to be changed,"Lara Aharonian, co-founder of the Women’s Resource Center Armenia (WRCA), told TrustLaw.

Photo taken on April 13, 2011 when the Women’s Resource Center Armenia held a press
conference in Yerevan to discuss their work to amend the Criminal Code. By Tamar Sarkissian.

Aharonian calls Armenia’s laws on sexual assault and rape “weak” in comparison to other countries in the region and believes they are "inherited from the Soviet regime.” If the amendments currently in circulation in parliament pass, it will mark the first change in Armenia’s laws on sexual violence. 

Aharonian believes the amendments stand a high chance of success due to strong support “among civil society, particularly NGOs working in children’s rights, trafficking and women’s rights, and among politicians as well.”

One major challenge the legislation could face concerns amendments addressing the age of minors. The amendments divide the section dealing with minors into two parts handling children under the age of 14 and over the age of 14 in different ways. There already have been questions raised about how to address cultural factors such as the age of marriage among minority groups in light of the proposed changes.

For those advocating for the amendments, this is only the first step in revising the Armenian criminal code. In addition to weak penalties for sexual violence, Armenia has no laws explicitly addressing domestic violence or even gender-based discrimination.

“It’s an important step toward gender-sensitive legal reform and a step toward greater awareness of justice and rights issues in Armenia.” says Aharonian. While there is more to be done, she hopes the amendments will ‘give confidence to women to report (sexual violence) and go forward with legal procedures since sanctions will be stronger compared to the old law where a perpetrator could end up paying just a fine or face just a couple of years in prison.’

Key changes proposed by amendments:

- Classifies sexual violence/assault as grave crimes, enabling sanctions envisaged in Articles 140, 141 and 142; the RA Criminal Code (chapter 18 on sexual violence/assault) to be realised, adding up to 15 years imprisonment depending on circumstances and making the concealment of the crimes punishable.

-Removes “fine” as a method of punishment for rape.

- Adds aggravating conditions to offenses.  For example, the old law didn't take into consideration the number of victims or number of offenses on the same victim; it was all treated equally as if the offense was against one person.  These factors would be taken into consideration along with other conditions, such as if a woman is pregnant and if there is use of a weapon,

- Removes the term "consent" if the victim is underage. A child cannot give consent even if there is no apparent “physical violence” committed. 

-Revokes guardianship rights immediately if the alleged perpetrator is a parent.

Background: Women’s Resource Center Armenia

In 2003, the then 30-year-old Lara Aharonian co-founded the Women’s Resource Center Armenia with two local friends to "create a safe space for women in Armenia to gather and voice their concerns and issues and collectively find solutions to obstacles faced by women in order to advance in society and make decisions for themselves."

The WCRA is the first resource center created in post-Soviet Armenia for young women. Now with more than 300 members in Yerevan and a sister branch in Shushi, the conflict zone of Nagorno-Karabakh, it works in the areas of women's human rights, reproductive and sexual rights, sexual violence and women's role in conflict resolution and peace building in the region of the South Caucasus.

The work of the WCRA on amending Armenia’s criminal code is part of a larger project funded by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry that gave the WCRA three years of funding for their sexual assault crisis center, whose needs outgrew its volunteer staff.

Beyond running a hotline for sexual assault survivors, the center also runs a national awareness campaign that seeks to better define sexual violence, works to establish preventive activities for different institutions and supports vulnerable groups.

Request more information on the Women’s Resource Center Armenia from: contact@womenofarmenia.org or go to their website.

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