Armenian parliament considers changes to domestic violence law

For two weeks now, the Armenian press has been flooded with news about a bill banning virginity testing. The ban would classify virginity testing, a controversial physical exam used to determine if a girl has had sexual relations, as an act of violence. It is part of a broader package of amendments that aims to strengthen Armenia’s current domestic violence law. The bill has gained widespread attention on various social platforms in Armenia, sparking debates over the preservation of national values. 

On February 7, the bill passed its first hearing in the Armenian National Assembly. The purpose of the draft law, according to its authors, is to increase the effectiveness of the prevention of domestic violence and protection of victims. According to the proposal, the existing law will be renamed “On Prevention of Domestic and Household Violence, Protection of Persons Exposed to Domestic and Household Violence, Restoration of Family Unanimity.” 

The amendments clarify and supplement existing definitions in the law to bring them in line with the Armenian Criminal Code. The draft proposes considering children as individuals protected under the law from violence. It also suggests revising terms related to urgent intervention and protective decisions, as well as mandating free or subsidized medical care for victims of domestic violence.

Under the bill, the aggravating factors listed in a number of articles of the Criminal Code will be reviewed, including factors determined by gender, as well as whether the crime was committed by a close relative, partner or ex-partner.

Tsovinar Vardanyan, co-author of the draft and MP of the ruling Civil Contract party, told the Armenian Weekly that this draft “represents a big cultural change” and is mainly preventive in nature. The MP singled out two important principal changes proposed, the first being the use of the term “partner” in the law.

“The need for these changes arose after consultations with non-governmental organizations and discussions with law enforcement officers. I consider it very important to introduce the concept of ‘partner’ in the law. The sphere of influence of our current law is not large and affects only marriages registered by law. When people are engaged or just dating, domestic violence also occurs. By defining the term ‘partner,’ the law will also protect those persons who are in a romantic relationship but are not officially married,” she said.

The second important change, according to the deputy, is to consider persecuting a person as a form of violence. “Almost all women living in Armenia have been persecuted at least once in their lives. The woman is disturbed by some actions, phone calls and messages of the abuser, but she cannot protect her rights, because there is no such law,” Vardanyan said.

Nvard Piliposyan, a lawyer from the Women’s Resource Center NGO, told the Weekly that persecution is a common and widespread phenomenon in Armenia. “There are many applications on this issue, against which we currently do not have any legal remedy, and it is very important that this act be criminalized,” she said.

In the National Assembly, MPs debated whether the Armenian Criminal Code already protects people from the forms of violence raised in the bill. Some members of the opposition argued that the topic was artificially introduced.

Gegham Nazaryan, deputy of the Armenia faction, presented this perspective in a conversation with the Weekly. “For cases of beating and violence, the RA Criminal Code applies, which prohibits beating and violence. That law already protects people from violence. The project introduced by Civil Contract is absurd,” Nazaryan said. 

Vardanyan, the co-author of the project, argued that the Criminal Code cannot provide full protection against domestic violence. “People in relationships are much more vulnerable. Therefore, there is a need for separate protection. In addition, there are many loopholes in our criminal code. For example, persecution as such is not in our laws. Often, people use violence based on ‘adat’ (custom in Armenian), so to speak, and neither the one who uses violence, nor the one subjected to violence, is aware that it is violence,” said Vardanyan.

Piliposyan agreed that the Criminal Code cannot fully protect the victims of domestic violence and that additional changes are needed. “The issue of the subjects between whom the violence takes place has always been the most problematic, because from the beginning, when the Law on Domestic Violence was adopted, the concepts of some relatives and spouses were included, which meant that the law could work in the case of registered marriages. But a number of people were left out of protection, for example, engaged individuals, people who are just dating, as well as LGBT people,” she said. 

Discussions concerning the introduction of the term “partner” have been heated. Opponents to the bill insist that the gender identities and sexual orientations of the partners should be clarified. Nazaryan argued that the bill, by being inclusive of LGBT couples, erodes the “traditional Armenian family, the union of a man and a woman.”

Regarding the debate over the word “partner,” Vardanyan said, “This law, as well as all laws in the Republic of Armenia, should not be discriminatory. Discrimination by any criteria is unacceptable, be it based on gender, race, religion or otherwise. The law protects all groups. The law creates a framework of protection for everyone, regardless of gender identity and orientation.”

“Family values are not defined by law, but domestic violence is clearly defined. This is just an anti-violence project that prevents domestic violence, household violence, and the family is a unit where, unfortunately, cases of violence occur, and the state is simply obliged to protect its citizens,” Vardanyan continued.

The Women’s Resource Center NGO participated in discussions of the project with the deputies. According to Piliposyan, there are many problematic wordings in the project from a legal point of view. “There are weak parts, definitions – for example, the household violence part, which we don’t quite agree with. It is not explained in any way what is domestic violence and what is household violence. From a legal point of view, there may be confusions,” she said, expressing hope that the problematic wording will be corrected during the second reading of the draft.

Despite the continued debate, Vardanyan is hopeful that the draft, which has been in discussion for two years, will be accepted in the second reading. “I am very happy that we have finally reached this stage, because the discussions lasted for a long time. I am not saying that the project is currently in its most perfect form. When the draft is put into practice, the shortcomings will be seen, which will be corrected. But at the moment, important changes have been made,” she said.

Yelena Sargsyan is a storyteller and journalist who primarily focuses on women's rights and LGBTQ+ issues in Armenia. She has contributed her work to various news outlets. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Yerevan State University and a master's in Near and Middle Eastern studies from the Institute of Oriental Studies, NAS RA.