World Vision's social worker visiting a poor family in a village
Like many girls in Armenia, Mariam was married young, a month before her seventeenth birthday. Her husband, Armen, was only four years older than his future wife. Now 26, Mariam is a mother of five: three boys and two girls. Her eldest is 8; her youngest is 1.5.
From the very beginning, their family life was far from happy. They lived in a village in the north-eastern region of Lori, where economic and employment opportunities are very limited, and the poverty is 38 per cent. Without jobs or a stable income, Mariam and Armen found it hard to make ends meet. Armen turned to alcohol to escape his problems and avoid the stress. At first he only drank occasionally. But, as time passed, it happened more and more often.
They had only been married for one year, when Armen first raised his hand to his wife under the influence of alcohol. Over the next several years he beat Mariam often, even while she was pregnant.
Domestic violence is not uncommon in Armenia, where up to 60 per cent of women are reported to experience some form of gender-based violence, ranging from inability to visit a doctor or use contraception without husband’s permission to physical abuse, resulting in injuries and even death. According to the 2010 Armenia Demographic and Health Survey, more than half the men in Lori consider wife beating acceptable.
Change on the horizon?
Gender-based violence has been in the centre of attention of many non-governmental organizations (NGOs), especially those focused on women’s issues. These entities have been trying to organize awareness-raising campaigns and set-up hot lines, as well as provide temporary shelter and psychological and legal support to the victims of domestic violence. The NGOs also initiated the drafting of a law that would specifically deal with domestic violence, but the proposed bill was recently rejected by the Government.
At the same time, there is a social stigma towards women who try to publicize the cases of violence or press charges against their partners. Such societal stereotypes and economic dependence force many women to stay with their abusive husbands.
“I felt pain and frustration. I wanted to leave my husband, but thought it would not be right for the children,” says Mariam. “I told my mother-in-law about our problems, but she could not do much to change her son’s behaviour,” she continues.
Like many women, Mariam was ashamed to turn to police or officials and continued to endure her husband’s behaviour, even though he regularly abused his wife in front of the children. The neighbours knew about their situation, but considered it a “family issue”.
One night, while she was pregnant with her youngest child, Mariam left. She took her four children and found refuge in the house of the local priest and later turned to World Vision’s social worker for help. “I knew about World Vision’s work in our community, and thought that they could help us,” says Mariam.
On World Vision’s initiative, a local working group with the participation of the village mayor, local police and regional Child Protection Unit representatives was created to support Mariam and her children. As a temporary solution the two eldest children were placed in an orphanage, and one of them was sent to stay with their grandmother, while Mariam and her youngest child found refuge in a shelter for the victims of violence.
At initiative of World Vision’s social worker, the local Guardianship and Trusteeship Committee called a meeting and took responsibility for the case. This was the first time, when the Committee, which previously existed only on paper, took action to protect the rights of children in their community. As a result of the joint efforts, Mariam was reunited with her children and the Committee was also able to waive the kindergarten fee for the two eldest children, so they would not miss out on education even though their family could not afford the payments.
The position and concept of social worker is relatively new in Armenia. World Vision is currently advocating for the establishment of a national system of social works that would ensure the presence of social workers in every community. The role of the social worker was introduced by World Vision in the communities, where World Vision has Area Development Programmes (ADPs) several years ago, and has already proven its effectiveness. The social workers not only work to strengthen community-level child protection mechanisms, they also help prevent domestic violence and child institutionalisation, while at the same time providing support to families and children in difficult circumstances and advising them on opportunities to improve their economic situations. Over the past two years, the social workers in communities where World Vision is active have helped to address domestic violence in more than 50 families.
“In Stepanavan ADP we had more than 10 cases, where our social workers helped to prevent regular domestic abuse and improved the situation of families,” says Armine Kalashyan, Stepanavan ADP team leader.
Despite the on-going economic difficulties, the violence in Mariam’s family has stopped. The social worker continues to visit them regularly. “Thanks to World Vision’s social worker, the situation in our family has improved. For the past several months, we have been living in peace,” says Mariam.
With the social worker’s advice, Mariam and Armen joined World Vision’s economic development initiative. They participated in a workshop for farmers on non-traditional agriculture, received seeds and seedlings and later had a substantial harvest.
“In many cases, the social workers helped to solve the problems and improve family relationships,” said Mikayel Frankyan, the Vardablur village mayor. “The introduction of social worker services in our community was definitely one of the most significant investments World Vision could have made.”