Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF) spoke to Lara Aharonian, the co-founder of the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) and board member of the Human Rights House Yerevan, about her life, her passion for human rights and the challenges she faces as a woman and as a human rights defender in Armenia.
Her interview with Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF) came soon after Armenia’s velvet revolution, which led to the peaceful transition of the government and the election of protest leader Nikol Pashinyan as prime minister.
Passion for human rights
Thinking back to when she first realised she wanted to defend human rights and women’s rights, Aharonian recalls:
“I experienced first-hand a case of violence against a friend of mine. I was a graduate student visiting Armenia, I didn’t think I would start an NGO or anything like that, all I wanted to do was to try and help her. We faced a lot of obstacles, and I saw just how much the system wasn’t working for women, particularly survivors of domestic violence.
My friend tried to separate herself from her partner, but since they had children together, this was extremely difficult.
In Armenia, families consider separation shameful, and the blame is always put specifically on women, as long as the children are in a family with two parents, everything else can be sacrificed. I saw that there is a problem, not only with the legal system, but deeper in the mentality of society.”
Instead of supporting her, the victim’s family advised her on how not to provoke violent behaviour from her partner.
A second defining moment came when Aharonian supported an underage girl who had been the victim of a sexual assault and had fallen pregnant as a result.
“I supported the girl through the abortion process. During this time, the police took advantage of the girl’s situation as an opportunity to extort money from her. She had asked them not to report the assault to her father and brothers, which could put her life at risk.
This triggered something in me. I realised that something should be done. In Armenia these are everyday problems; sexism, misogyny, and homophobia, for example, are all very visible. I saw the same patterns over and over again. I saw where there were problems that needed to be addressed.”
Early life: Lebanon to Canada
Born and raised in Lebanon, Aharonian later fled the civil war to Canada, before migrating to her ancestral homeland of Armenia. With a smile on her face, she reflects on the diversity of her background:
“Today I call myself an immigrant. This is an identity that I strongly associate with because of my lifetime living in different countries – they have shaped who I am.
It was Lebanon that provided me with an understanding of what it means to be a minority in society, and what challenges minorities face. I also learned about the realities of war and how it affects communities, and women in particular.
When my family left Lebanon – fleeing the war – we left by boat through Cyprus, where most refugees from Lebanon went. In recent years, we have seen desperate human beings fleeing Syria. I deeply sympathise with their situation how you can lose everything in a couple of days and be forced start from zero in a new community.
In Lebanon I saw war, loss, death, destruction – I didn’t have this vision of how good things could be. When I arrived in Canada it was so healing. Canada gave me this vision of possibilities and progress. It was so green, so clean, so friendly, there was public transportation, access to education for all, multiculturalism, respect for all.
Coming home for the first time
Yet, despite loving her life in Canada, she felt a certain pull that many members of Armenian diaspora may find familiar:
“When you are a part of the diaspora, you have a lot of this nationalist, patriotic upbringing. The family will make sure you are connected with the language and the history. My upbringing was no exception. I always dreamed of coming to Armenia, and as soon as I had the opportunity, I became the first in my living family to ever set foot in Armenia. I fell in love with Armenia during this time, and knew that one day I would return.”
Aharonian’s first visit to Armenia was in 1985, when she was a part of a student exchange programme. In the 1990s, she travelled again to Armenia to work as a volunteer with construction in rural areas. In her spare time, she talked with women and young people, to get a sense of what was happening in the country. She spent time in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. She credits this time as helping to show her the real Armenia, in contrast to the nostalgic and nationalistic stories of her upbringing:
“Actually coming to Armenia helped me shed these attitudes, and stereotypes.
I saw Armenia for the first time as a real place and not as this romanticised fantasy from our grandparents. I felt so at home here, with the history and the language, and I resonated with the people.
Her final move to Armenia began in 2003, as a university student doing her graduate programme.
I didn’t think I would stay forever, but as years passed, I became more settled here. My parents never understood why I moved from Canada to Armenia, after they had rescued me from war-torn Lebanon. For me, Armenia was more real, more down to earth, more human compared to Canada, which for all of its inspiring, wonderful positives, was this closed atmosphere of capitalism and bureaucracy.”
Armenia’s velvet revolution began in April 2018, and led to the peaceful transition of government and the election of protest leader Nikol Pashinyan as prime minister.
“The protests were very empowering to be a part of. It was very decentralised, there were women activists and feminists peacefully gathering and demonstrating our messages and slogans. We were able to raise issues like labour rights by protesting in front of businesses owned by oligarchs, where employees have been exploited, underpaid, or kept without contracts over the years.
The demonstrations were also accessible, with “pots and pans” protests taking place in the evenings to give people who are unable leave their homes a chance to participate.
Leaders were talking about social justice, that this is a new Armenia: no hate speech, human rights will be protected, rule of law will prevail. It’s the first time I’ve heard a leader discuss these things in a political speech. It’s very promising.”
As an important voice to the diaspora community, Aharonian reports on human rights and women’s rights in Armenia, speaking at events all over the world and updating people via social media.
“Sometimes I feel that when I talk about these things, it’s the first time that many are hearing about it because often their information comes from national television, or they have experienced a great vacation in the summer, but didn’t get a chance to see the full story.”
From crime scene to women’s center
Lara Aharonian has worked to change Armenian society since she was a student. At Yerevan State University in 2003, she applied to start a group on feminist issues, and was put in touch with Gohar Shahnazaryan.
Starting with meetings in cafes and other public spaces, Aharonian and Shahnazaryan eventually asked the university for a small space, which it provided. However, following an advertisement on campus for a talk about sexuality hosted at the space, the university rector, shocked at the subject matter, closed the group down.
“They covered our little space in yellow tape – it looked like a crime scene. It was at this time that we started to work on registering the Women’s Resource Center.
Women’s Resource Center has grown into a vibrant centre, which promotes women’s rights through a number of methods and channels:
We have used film screenings, and we have a 24-hour online community radio called Women’s Voice Radio with music and interviews with women. We have a feminist oral story initiative, which is preparing an archive on the daily struggle – some of the archive will go on radio, some will be archived to preserve the voice of women for generations to come.
With feminists artists, we use art as a means to raise awareness on taboo issues such as sexuality and bodies.
Aharonian identifies one of the organisation’s biggest successes as being able to begin to break the taboo on sexual violence against women:
“Every two years we have a women’s march targeting a particular province, going door to door as well as talking to schools, clinics, and local authorities.
We target campaigns on sexual assault at men, carry out programmes for teenagers and parents discussing sexuality, and push for a domestic violence law and for amendments to the sexual violence law.
Women are now calling our community-driven sexual crisis centre, which is the first of its kind in Armenia. Today, we even work with the investigator’s office to change their attitudes and approach towards survivors of sexual violence.”
Feminism and equality
In her work on sexuality, gender identity, women’s rights and feminism, Aharonian draws a parallel the LGBT+ community also face many of the same issues and problems:
“In society, if we can resolve gender identity and orientation, other things would be very easy to resolve. Feminism is intersectional, you can’t raise the issue of patriarchy and only talk about women. Patriarchy attacks all kinds of people that aren’t the so-called social “norm”.
You can’t say you are only working for heterosexual women – that is nonsense. So it’s completely natural to defend LGBT+ rights as well.”
Harassment and discrimination
Lara Aharonian speaks about the challenges that women face in society, as well as what it is like to be a women’s rights defender.
Women face challenges and stereotypes at different levels in society, starting at home, from the family, where they are not always encouraged to break their traditional role. Challenges also come from friends, employers, from the government, and law enforcement bodies. These stereotypes can be particularly difficult if you are a human rights defender:
“It’s harder when you are fighting patriarchal values as well as general human rights issues. We are part of civil society raising the issue of injustice, but we are also shaking the whole cultural mentality. A lot of time we even have to denounce sexism among civil society itself.
I’ve been threatened with rape, death threats, and other kinds of violence. People have spat on me in public, people have followed me. I have been the subject of smear campaigns on social media. These threats were very intimidating at first, but I feel like I have become more used to it, and have found ways to deal with it.”
Aharonian has also faced discrimination on the grounds of her status as a member of the diaspora community. During a demonstration, she was once challenged by a counter protest – a former presidential candidate and the head of a pro-Russian party – who told her that she not Armenian, and that she “didn’t drink the water here” and to go back to her own country.
“I often hear this kind of thing, it used to bother me but now I just say ‘I am here, I will stay here, and I am Armenian whether you like it or not’.”
Aharonian credits her colleagues in WRC and at Human Rights House Yerevan as helping her to cope with these issues. She also finds a lot of strength in her family and children.
“The House is like a support group for us. It is also a secure space for us too. The network of Houses has also helped us to reach out to other communities that work on issues outside of women’s rights, like free expression and assembly.”
Looking to the future with optimism
Despite her satisfaction with the result of the velvet revolution in April 2018, there were some disappointments. Among 17 newly appointed ministers, only two were women.
“We had some candidates that we felt that were good in some positions – but we also realised that many women weren’t interested, which shows the problem is at a much deeper level, a level we need to address.”
Another disappointment came in the form of a minister who was previously involved in a hate crime against the LGBT+ community, after six years he has not offered an apology.
“He protected the perpetrators of the bombing of an LGBT+ friendly pub, even paying their bail. With Mamikon and others we sent letters and voiced our concern, as hate and hate speech will not be welcome in this new Armenia.”
Asked about what her vision of a perfect society, Aharonian responded:
“Everyone’s rights are protected no matter who they are, what they think, what their challenges are. Everyone is comfortable and empowered to ask for their rights. More representation, not only from women, but from all groups in decision-making spheres. More green spaces.
Hoping that our organisations can finally be closed and that I can go and write my book and enjoy life, and not thinking about how to help the next case of violence or sexual assault. I’m optimistic for now, but there is a lot of work still to be done.”
Lara Aharonian is an Armenian human rights defender who is dedicated to advocating for the advancement of women’s rights internationally and at home in Armenia. She is a board member of Human Rights House Yerevan, and the founder of Women’s Resource Center Armenia (WRCA). In 2003, she founded WRCA which offers women various types of teaching, training and support. WRCA is the first drop-in resource centre created for women in Armenia in the post-soviet era.
In her work advocating for the advancement of women’s rights, Aharonian works to protect vulnerable women experiencing gender-based violence, domestic violence, sexual violence, and has also worked since 2007 with women living in the conflict region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Over the past five years, Lara Aharonian has worked towards an increased respect for the status and work of human rights defenders and women human rights defenders through international advocacy towards UN alongside Human Rights House Foundation.
Interviews with Defenders from the Human Rights Houses
“When I was a teenager I left Armenia because, as a gay person, I felt unsafe. I moved to the United States and found it to be a huge change. After living there for about 4 months I felt that if I wanted freedom and peace, then I would have to earn it – and that I wanted to work for change in my country.”
Read more in The Reality of LGBT+ activism in Armenia.
“Many people think that if you have a women’s agenda, that it is sort of soft issue and that you don’t confront much. But it is not true – women’s rights cannot be at good level in a country where the general human rights record is poor. So, most of the issues which we combat are related to discrimination, which is not only related to traditions and stereotypes, but also to the lack of rule of law, corruption, and bad governance.”
Read more in Two Decades Empowering Women in Azerbaijan.
This article was published as part of the Human Rights Houses monthly newsletter for May 2018.