April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month in many countries. The main goal of the campaign is to raise people’s awareness about the phenomenon of sexual violence. In Armenia, the campaign has been actively conducted in the last years. In our country, the contribution of the Sexual Assault Crisis Center is invaluable in the protection of the rights and interests of victims of sexual violence.
We have talked about sexual violence, its types, the steps taken against that phenomenon, problems with the center’s social worker Anush Gabrielyan.
Sexual violence is not only rape
In our society, sexual violence is often associated only with rape. However, sexual violence is multilayered and involves different types of acts.
“Besides rape, there is the phenomenon of sexual harassment, in which the actual sexual act does not take place, but sexualized actions take place. And, by the way, it is no less traumatic than rape, that’s why we never make this secondary,” says Anush Gabrielyan, noting that sexual harassment includes unwanted touching, making sexual offers, sexual slurs, etc. According to Anush, there are cases when a person gives their consent to a sexual act, but it happens by force or due to various circumstances, which is also considered sexual violence։ “There are cases when a person has to consent to sexual contact, for example at work. There is a very dual situation here and there are difficulties, but this is clearly sexual violence,” she emphasizes.
According to the specialist, sexual harassment is often very manipulative, and very often the abused person may not understand from the beginning that they are being sexually harassed.
Speaking about rapes, Anush notes that in this case too, everything is not clear, and very often some problems are not talked about։ “Spousal or intimate partner rape is not often talked about, it comes from society’s perceptions, and often it is simply considered as a “marital duty,” says the social worker who deals with the issues of sexually abused people.
Sexual violence is not just about heterosexuality
Sexual violence in Armenia almost always has a heteronormative perception: LGBTQ+ people are often left in the shadows, and in this case they become more vulnerable.
According to Anush, LGBTQ+ people become vulnerable in the context of sexual violence, among other issues, due to the lack of law: “For example, if in the case of a heterosexual couple it is possible to apply to the law enforcement agencies on the basis of domestic violence, then in the case of homosexual couples it becomes impossible because they are not recognized as a family by law,” she notes.
According to Anush, the number of cases of sexual violence against LGBTQ+ people is very high: “Basically, first of all, it depends on the society’s attitude towards LGBTQ+ people. In many cases, people do not go to the police because they know they will not get help, they will be ridiculed and humiliated. The cases we’ve dealt with have mostly involved LGBTQ+ people “for the purpose of punishment or treatment”, when abusers say, for example, “you haven’t seen a good man in your life, that’s why you have relationships with girls.” In addition, it is within the family that sexual violence is very common mainly for punitive purposes. In general, there are a lot of cases of sexual harassment and violence in closed institutions, including against LGBTQ+ people,” Anush presents the situation in Armenia.
Urgent issues and potential solutions
According to Anush Gabrielyan, it is important to define the term “sexual violence” at the legal level and criminalize the phenomenon։ “For example, if someone now goes to the police to report sexual harassment, it will be considered a hooligan act, and many cases simply do not go to the police because there are no grounds.”
The next important change, according to Anush, should be the development of referral mechanisms։ “It is very important that a person receives the service according to her needs. That is, not that a person should go to the police, from where they will send her to a forensic medical examination, but it is very important that if they have a physical injury, they should go to the hospital first, because their primary need is their health, after that, if they want (and not or mandatory, which is now) they will contact the police. In addition, it is important to have the opportunity to store evidence in the hospital, because very often at that moment people are not ready to contact the police, but they are not against, for example, keeping evidence to file a report later,” Anush notes.
As another priority change, Anush Gabrielyan considers it important that a person subjected to sexual violence has the status of a person with special needs, as is the case with persons subjected to domestic violence: “Of course, there are other issues here, for example, why categorize a person, in addition, there are privacy protection issues, etc., but if we want a person to have the ability to receive state support, to receive support in using various centers, shelters, therefore, she should be recognized as a person with special needs,” emphasizes the social worker.
Anush considers that the changes first of all depend on working with the state: “In fact, whether the public attitude changes or not, this is state policy. We don’t have the same opportunities as a government employee, such as a social worker. For example, we can inform three hundred people, but not three million people. There are many things that are really out of our hands,” she says.
The activities of the SACC
The Sexual Assault Crisis Center now works in three directions. The first and most important activity is the provision of legal, psychological and social support.
The center also engages in advocacy. According to Anush, there are obvious gaps in the law, or the law exists, but clear mechanisms are absent and/or very limited.
The next important component of the activity of the SACC is awareness and training: “We train psychologists, lawyers and social workers. And we conduct trainings with different groups, from schoolchildren to parents, teachers or just community residents, various specialists,” says the center’s social worker.
SACC deals with one of the most difficult and delicate topics, as a result of which it often faces difficulties and challenges. Anush Gabrielyan, speaking about overcoming the difficulties and challenges they face, says: “Every day you come across some kind of catastrophic information, and whether it’s professional knowledge, psychological support, or some other method, at some point you feel like you’re giving up when you realize you can’t fight the systems when, for example , they don’t believe that the woman was sexually assaulted or they blame the victim of the violence, saying that “she instigated that step”. Working in such conditions and dealing with such desperate situations, it is important not to take those stories and incidents personally. Rather, something like medical equanimity comes to you, which protects you and helps you to continue your activities,” says Anush with a smile.
How to help overcome the problem of sexual violence?
Overcoming the problem of sexual violence, bringing about positive changes is not only the work of specialists dealing with the subject. Every person, regardless of industry, can contribute. According to Anush Gabrielyan, the most important tool is awareness։ it is necessary to inform as much as possible in different groups, with different methods and form։ “It is necessary to get maximum knowledge, to understand what types of sexual violence there are and what consequences they can lead to, to understand how to support a person who has been subjected to sexual violence. It is necessary to recognize the phenomenon of sexual violence as much as possible and talk about it from all possible platforms. I think this is the most important and important thing that supporters, activists and people concerned about the problem can do,” concludes Anush Gabrielyan.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can call the confidential hotline number of the SACC: 094-94-12-80 and get professional advice.
Interview by Yelena Sargsyan