Last year in Armenia, I stood with a woman discussing the pandemic of gender-based violence in her country. She was a women’s rights expert who acknowledged the prevalence of violence against women, and the even stronger prevalence of silence. I was there to shoot an advocacy film on gender based violence, and asked for help finding one of the many strip clubs in Yerevan showing scantily clad women on the façade of the building. She said she had no idea what I was talking about. I tried to explain where I had seen the images, but she continued to tell me she didn’t think such a thing existed. Literally minutes after leaving her office, I saw at least five of these establishments within a three-block radius.
What made her deny the clear presence of exploitative imagery? Was it denial? Or was it so deeply entrenched in Armenian culture, that she truly never noticed the commoditization of women?
In 2012, N-Map worked with a group of women from the Women’s Resource Center of Armenia (WRC) and the Women’s Support Center (WSC) on a multi-faceted campaign to fight violence against women and children in Armenia.
Why gender-based violence in Armenia?
Armenia suffers from a long history of repression and violence. Worse, these periods of suffering have been silenced, by Armenians themselves and by the world. As many post-soviet or post-communist societies experience, liberalization leads to new inequalities based on long-standing prejudices silenced during the soviet period. In Cuba, for example, racism has been on the rise as more and more money and visitors flow to the country. Those with family outside of Cuba – a majority of them lighter skinned – bring income into Cuba that that provides Caucasian relatives with greater social and economic status. At the same time, 90% of the Cuban Congress is Caucasian, showing the racism that has always existed in Cuba, even if it was ignored. In Armenia, as in Cuba, inequalities are suppressed, and religious and traditional values and practices are discouraged and even outlawed. Thus, many of the important movements seen in the U.S., from the Civil Rights Movement to the Women’s Movement, have not yet happened in post-soviet societies. Furthermore, laws in most of these countries, to the extent that they are enforced, generally lack protections for those who are increasingly suffering from this discrimination, often in the form of violence.
In Armenia, this violence and discrimination occurs in the home, in the streets, in schools, and in places of work, most often targeting women and girls. There are no legal protections for victims of sexual or gender based violence, and few women report these crimes due to fear of retribution and shame. In many cases, women have trouble even recognizing that they are in fact victims of a crime. While anecdotal evidence clearly shows otherwise, the government denies that sexual and gender based violence is a problem.
N-Map’s work in Armenia sought to lay the groundwork for policy change and new legal protections, so that ultimately, victims of violence will be able to seek justice under Armenian law. We set out originally to create media to support litigation of gender based violence cases, but without a law in place, the leading Armenian lawyer working on gender based violence told us there was no purpose in supporting legal work until a law is passed.
So, where does one start?
Well, visualizing the problem. If you can credibly visualize the widespread violence against women and girls in Armenia, advocates have important tools at their disposal to make it impossible to deny the pervasive situation of violence facing Armenian society.
How to do this?
We worked with our partners in Armenia to establish that reporting violence was a key obstacle to policy and legal change, and that media could help. Our partners wanted to involve their staff in learning how to better document and use new media for their advocacy.
We decided to follow a phased strategy. First, we developed and led a five-day workshop in June 2012 on new media advocacy strategy and production for the staff and volunteers of WRC and WSC. As part of this workshop, the participants developed media and gained insight on the issue by working together to develop new media strategies to combat gender-based violence. The workshop was successful both in teaching new media advocacy strategy and production to Armenian women, but also greatly informed the film we ultimately created to encourage survivors of sexual and domestic violence to “break the silence”.
A shocking realization…
After the workshop, I stayed to work with Argo, our Armenian Director of Photography to interview key characters in the fight to advance protections for women in Armenia and capture the footage needed for the film. During the additional days of shooting, several things led me to realize how dire the situation is for women in Armenia. Of course, interviewing lawyers, advocates, service providers and even a religious leader about gender-based violence in Armenia was an education in and of itself. Planning the shoot was also insightful. We asked to interview survivors who would be willing to speak about their experiences to encourage others to report their abuse and seek help. Out of the hundreds of women who work with our partner organizations in Armenia, there were only two women that agreed to be interviewed. The first was in the midst of a high profile legal case after having been trafficked to Russia and experiencing sustained abuse by her husband and in-laws. The second was a women survivor of both rape and domestic abuse, who, at the age of 35, began to write about her experience, and the experiences of other survivors. Writing these experiences did not only empower her after years of shame and suffering, but she was also able to help other women realize they are not alone. These interviews, and knowing that they were the only women in the country we could find willing to talk, were telling indicators of the extent of the problem.
Perhaps the most shocking moment occurred after five days of shooting with Argo on the way home from an incredibly moving interview with Lusine. I asked Argo whether he thought sexual violence was a problem in Armenia. He turned to look at me, and gave a deadpan response: “No.” This moment of absolute denial made clear the need to not only encourage survivors to report violence, but also to address the immense cultural denial of violence against women, and in some cases, its cultural acceptance in Armenia. This effort requires all of Armenian society – not only women- to recognize the problem, support survivors, and take action to fight for Armenian women’s rights and those of their families and communities.
Argo, a good guy, participated in more than a dozen interviews that week with men and women, leaders and survivors, and was still able to say that gender violence was not a problem in his country! It took until we had proper translation the following day for us to be able to come together with the understanding that violence against women is a pandemic that could be compared, in many ways, to genocide. I asked how he felt about the denial of the Armenian Genocide. I let him draw his own conclusions, and I’m pretty sure the conversation left him thinking…
Finally, one of the images that stuck with me from the experience working on violence against women in Armenia was the 24-hour flower shop. In filming a documentary or advocacy film, one of the key elements of production is capturing “B-Roll” – imagery that helps to “show” the story your interviews are telling. To do this, a director needs to listen to the interviews for key points being made and figure out what images could be taken to fill in his or her story visually. I remembered during one interview hearing about how men will go to flower shops after beating their wives to “apologize” once they realized what they had done. I had never seen a 24-hour flower shop in my life and upon first glance, before hearing these stories, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would need emergency flowers. I guess I figured out the answer.
We are very pleased to launch this film, titled by our partners in Armenia “Silence Interrupted,” and hope to continue our work to fight for legal protections for women in Armenia, and ultimately, if we can help our partners to succeed in that battle, someday to support legal cases to ensure justice for the brave women who spoke out and continue to speak out for these rights.