As executive director of the women's rights and peace organisation Society Without Violence, Anna Nikoghosyan is often targeted by anti-equality groups. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Karin Råghall.
As executive director of the women's rights and peace organisation Society Without Violence, Anna Nikoghosyan is often targeted by anti-equality groups. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Karin Råghall.

"They accused us of promoting pedophilia"

A month ago, Anna Nikoghosyan celebrated her 10-year-anniversary as an activist. Working for women’s human rights in Armenia means constantly defending yourself against threats and smear campaigns. ”Extremist groups spread the message that gender equality is an anti-family and anti-Armenian western concept,” she says.

Anna Nikoghosyan still clearly remembers that taxi ride. It was the day after her organisation Society Without Violence (SWV) had held a press conference to comment on a particularly vicious hate campaign against them and all others working for gender equality. The attackers used social and mainstream media to claim that the activists’ were promoting pedophilia and beastiality.

But what was meant as a way of setting things straight, once again got twisted before it reached the tv audience.

”I got into the taxi and the driver recognized my face from the tv program. He turned and said ’What are you doing, you are destroying Armenia!’ I tried to tell him that they were lying about our organisation and what we do. But many were thinking like him and that made it a very difficult time for us. We were emotionally exhausted, sometimes we could just cry. You have devoted your whole life to saving the lives of other women and suddenly there are all these people accusing you of making propaganda for pedophelia. You see it on tv, in digital media – everywhere,” Anna Nikoghosyan says.

Campaign against gender

The period she refers to took place last year and is still the worst she has experienced during her time as a women human rights defender. Suddenly, extremists started campaigning against the word ”gender”, saying that it was bad and meant the earlier mentioned sexual abnormalities but also mixed with homosexuality and transgenderism. They claimed that these were dangerous European values that were being forced upon Armenia, and accused everyone working for gender equality to be anti-Armenian.

Society Without Violence SWV was founded in 2001. The organisation’s work focuses on three main areas:

• Women’s empowerment and gender equality promotion
• Women’s role in peacebuilding
• Prevention of gender-based violence

SWV also do a lot of advocacy work for LGBT rights and is currently planning to scale up that part of its activities.

Anna Nikoghosyan and her colleagues were flooded with hateful e-mails, Facebook messages and film clips. The most active campaigners was a group that called themselves the Pan-Armenian parents’ committee. However, Anna Nikoghosyan is sure that the attacks had nothing to do with family and all to do with politics.

”This happened when Armenia was in a process of either signing an association agreement with the EU or to enter into a customs union with Russia, Belarus and some other countries – the last option being yet another way for Russia to control us. So, since LGBT issues and gender equality are sensitive topics here, pro-Russian extremists used that to try to show that Europe is a perversion. As soon as it was clear that Armenia was going to join the customs union, the attacks ended within a few days,” she says.

Authorities caved in

The activists never got much help from authorities. On the contrary, when the gender-bashers also went for the recently adopted Gender Equality Law, most politicians, Anna Nikoghosyan feels, simply caved in.

”Their position was ’ok we take back the law and remove the word gender’. So we said, how come we have used this term for so many years having no problems with it, and now as the result of pressure from some extremist groups you are changing your opinion? As a compromise they postponed the discussion till next year. But at the same time they have gone through all possible old documents, like Armenia’s Gender policy concept for 2011-2015, and have changed the word ’gender’ to ’sex’. It no longer talks about gender-based discrimination but discrimination on the basis of sex. Such actions legitimize the attacks on us!

Persecuted by newspaper

This was not the first nor the last time that Anna Nikoghosyan was threatened because of her activism. Recently she was in court to be heard in a case where she and other activists had sued a newspaper that had published their names and personal information, claiming that they ’served the interests of international homosexual lobbying’ and encouraging employers to fire them.

Still, nothing seems to stop her or even slow her down. When we speak, she has just come back from a demonstration outside the parliament against suggested changes in the law on maternity leave and at the same time SWV are planning a big campaign against domestic violence together with other activists. Her commitment has been clear ever since as a 14-year-old she first was introduced to the concept of women’s rights by a civil society organisation that came to talk at her school.

”I had never heard about these issues before and got really, really interested. I was very stubborn and disobedient as a child, changing some norms myself, but I never realized that that was what I was doing,” Anna Nikoghosyan says.

More women speak up

Comparing that time with now, there has definitely been some progress for women’s rights in Armenia she says. But there are big differences between the capital, where the awareness level nowadays is quite high, and the rural regions, where patriarchal traditions are still very strong. And gender-based violence is present everywhere.

”Every third woman in Armenia has been subjected to violence of some kind. This year only, 12 women have died from domestic violence and the police has registered more than 1500 cases of this type of abuse. That is three times more than last year. However, I am actually happy about that, because it is not the number of cases that has increased, but the number of women who speak up. We also see that more women are calling hotlines and come to seek help from organisations like ours. That is a huge step towards ending violence against women, a real positive change!”

Malin Ekerstedt

Updated in: 2014-12-03