Thursday, 1 October 2009

Talking about child sexual abuse in Armenia: NGOs cooperating for better solutions

On September 25, 2009, the Sexual Assault Crisis Center of the Women's Resource Center invited different NGOs, Government representatives and concerned citizens to a round table discussion on the reality of child sexual abuse in Armenia.

The goal was to assess the situation after the scandal in one of the special schools in Yerevan, Nubarashen #11 where a group of volunteers reported incidences of neglect, violence and sexual abuse towards the children with mental disabilities. Following these scandal Mariam Sukhudyan, one of the activists interviewing the children was accused of defamation, risking up to 5 years of imprisonment while no legal procedures were taken against the institution's administration and staff.

The discussion was based on 2 important elements; 1- to assess the situation in Armenia, based on different organizations' work on children with special needs and from low socio-economic families; 2- to find the best methods to raise awareness and advocate for this issue in society and with governmental bodies.

Many NGOs responded to the invitation, bringing their own concerns regarding this issue. Among them were World Vision, Fund for Armenian Relief, Armenian Relief Society, Society without Violence, Pink Armenia and Democracy Today.

Representatives from World Vision Armenia stated that this is a problem that they have encountered since the start of their work in the country and pointed out that most of the time violence against children starts in the family and sexual abuse is one form that occurs on an alarming scale. They also stated that mothers are often aware of what is happening but find it better to hide it and the family to deny it, to not endanger their reputation or the reputation of the child, since the child will fall victim of an intolerant society and will be repeatedly hurt.

The representative from FAR (fund for Armenian Relief) working over a decade with children from broken families, was familiar with the issue of sexual abuse. She urged all the participants and workers in this field to act carefully because in her opinion, to change the system in a developing country is an extremely long and challenging process. She insisted that assistance should be provided to individuals first, and on the long run reform the system to dismantle group institutions and help more families to take care of their children, since most of these children placed come from poor families lacking the basic needs to provide for them and trusting the institution to do so.

It was also stated that for one child in every special public institution, the state allocates 5000 US dollars annually, while families receive 200-300 US. This may explain the resistance of these institutions' leadership, safeguarding their positions. All NGOs agreed that a reformative approach and shifting work towards families would be a better solution. By keeping those children as much as possible in their familiar settings and local schools and not to cut them from their community would be more efficient and insure sustainability.

Mariam Sukhudyan's case was raised during the discussions by her friends and former volunteers at the Nubarashen special school. Most of the participants agreed that Mariam brought up an important question that people were trying to deny or not openly discuss, claiming the accusations against her were unjust. All present NGOs declared that it was crucial to support her case and make sure that she does not fall victim of the system.

The discussion concluded upon the agreement of the following steps:

1- Continue raising their voices on the alarming situation in Armenia, regarding child abuse by inviting the community for more discussions (public debates, TV panel discussions with experts, etc)
2- Join the efforts of the coalition of NGOs working on children's rights in Armenia and write letters to officials urging them to address the issue with the cooperation of NGOs
3- Implement a research and national survey to better understand the needs of those children and how to reform the system for better prevention of child neglect and abuse in these institutions.

The group will meet again to discuss further and in details specific actions.

L.A., Women's Resource Center, Yerevan, Armenia

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