Armenia: breaking the wall of silence on abuse and neglect
By Onnik Krikorian and UNICEF Armenia
Abandoned by her husband, a single mother appears close to another nervous breakdown. Still living in one of the many metal domiks that define part of the urban landscape of Armenia’s second largest city, Gyumri, she beats her teenage daughters from time to time. Unable to find alternative means to support her family, she responds with violence when they plead with her to stop "walking the streets."Back in the Armenian capital, another mother holds back her tears as she clutches the photograph of her youngest daughter. Isabella, captured on film at the age of eighteen months, will never get to celebrate her second birthday. Months earlier, while playing unsupervised on a dilapidated stairwell in one of Yerevan’s sub-standard hostels, she was pushed by another child and fell seven floors to her death.
Yet, although the problem exists everywhere, there are many that would rather not admit that child abuse and neglect also occurs in Armenia even though it is known that adverse socio-economic conditions can exasperate the situation. Children that fall victim to it increasingly play truant from school or beg on the streets and, in extreme cases, can end up in juvenile detention or residential care. Some even become easy picking for traffickers.
As a result, in a UNICEF commissioned survey published in 2003, the wall of silence that sometimes surrounds the problem of child abuse and neglect was finally broken down. The survey of over of over two thousand respondents served as the basis for raising awareness among government officials and inter-agency committees.
In particular, the survey concluded that poor living conditions, unemployment and the psychological stress of living below the national poverty line had resulted in an increase in the number of cases of abuse and neglect not only in the family but also in schools and children’s institutions. Alcohol and drug abuse was considered a major cause for the behavior of some parents towards their children.
Today's parents: yesterday's childrenKaren Harutyunyan, Coordinator of the Armenian National Task Force on the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, however, stresses the need for caution when discussing such a sensitive issue and says that the problem also affects children from other strata in society. "We have to remember that today’s parents are yesterday’s children," he says, adding that abuse and neglect, albeit in different forms, exists even among financially secure families.
"Studies in many countries have repeatedly shown that victims of physical abuse during childhood have an increased risk of becoming violent offenders themselves," explains Sheldon Yett, UNICEF’s Representative in Armenia. "Some evidence indicates that repeated psychological and emotional abuse can have an even greater impact on childhood victims than physical violence."
The National Task Force on the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, a group that includes members from key ministries, NGOs and UNICEF, will therefore seek to address the problem through the development of a legislative framework for the early identification, registration, referral and treatment of child abuse as well as through the provision of training materials.
"Of course, parents still have the primary responsibility to safeguard their children from violence and neglect," says Yett. "However, to tackle this issue, a holistic approach is necessary. Community Outreach programmes need to be in place and those found guilty of abuse should be held accountable. Community-based systems are essential and need to be expanded."
Through the development of such approaches, technical support will be provided to the local authorities and the program presented to the wider NGO community. Draft regulations on child abuse and neglect will be submitted to Parliament and new ethical and professional guidelines for police and health care providers introduced. The proposed legislation also calls for the protection of the rights of child witnesses and victims of crime.
Until then, UNICEF has already supported the creation and development of various initiatives that will be crucial in any programme to address the problem. In 2002, UNICEF funded the establishment of a Community-based Care Center for Children at Risk in Gyumri and last year, the development of Outreach Services at the Fund for Armenian Relief’s Children’s Reception & Orientation Center in Yerevan.
UNICEF also supported the Douleurs Sans Frontiers (DSF) International NGO in training health professionals working in the primary health care system in Yerevan and Gyumri to identify cases of child abuse and neglect.
However, according to Harutyunyan, the sensitivity of the issue still remains a stumbling block. As a psychologist formerly working for FAR, he says that at least 6-7% of approximately 800 children working or living on the streets and at risk that were placed in the center were sexually abused. "There are children that have had very problematic experiences in boarding schools, in their neighborhoods and in their families," he says.
For more information:
Emil Sahakyan, Communication Officer, tel: (374 1) 523-546,