Who controls my body?

Arshaluys Barseghyan

For 12 years, Nare* tried not to remember what happened to her, what was done to her body, when she was a child.

A survivor of repeated rape by a close family friend, she felt deep shame and tried to bury the memories of the assaults.

Unfortunately, Nare is far from the only Armenian woman to remain silent about abuse. A deeply conservative country, Armenia offers few outlets for abuse survivors – male, female, adults or minors – to receive justice and help.

Armenia's long standing taboos on open discussions about sexual harassment and violence cracked in July after a journalist, Lucy Kocharyan, turned her Facebook page into a platform for people to speak out about their own experiences of sexual abuse as minors and as adults. 

Kocharyan’s movement was prompted by the story of Eva, who was sexually assaulted while volunteering in Armenia. Eva’s fight for justice, and fight against the prevailing mentality that rape does not happen in Armenia, unleashed an outpouring of stories from over 200 Armenian women, tales of sexual abuse against children and adults.  

These heart-wrenching stories shocked many people in Armenia, and briefly softened the longstanding culture of shame that had traditionally silenced victims of sexual violence from speaking out. 

While official statistics show a drop in the number of sex crimes against children in the last three years, sexual abuse is underreported and remains an acute problem in Armenia, according to Anush Pogosyan, the head of the Women’s Resource Center’s sexual and reproductive health and rights program. 

“Sexual violence is used as an instrument to reestablish power and strength. It is mostly committed against women and minors,” she says.

Official data indicates 14-17 years old are the highest risk group

Actually it wasn’t me who chose

“Around a year ago I started to tell my friends that there is someone in my life and we had sex. For me it was a justification for my non-virginity and it also temporarily gave me the confidence that I got to choose when to have sex”.

Today Nare, 24, only partially remembers the sexual abuse she was subjected to around 12 years ago. Initially, she tried to cut those years out of her life. Nare never spoke about it until last summer, when a friend told her about an acquaintance who was the victim of sexual abuse as a child.  “I don’t remember what happened to me… I went to the restroom and—I do remember this—I kept washing my face. Then I returned to the table, sat down and told her. That was the starting point,” she says.

After that night, she started to have nightmares and panic attacks. She became increasingly depressed and even tried to kill herself twice. “It was as if it had just happened to me,” she says. 

The abuse started when she was around 12. A relative, a man her parents respected, raped her for around two years. She knew what was happening to her—her mother had already explained sex to her, how someone could get pregnant.

But the man threatened her into silence and she said nothing, not even when she feared she might be pregnant. 

“I do remember he kept telling me that I was to blame. That if I speak up about it, he can deny it and tell others that it was my fault. During those years I tried to commit suicide several times. I thought if I ate a fly, I was going to die, as it contains a lot of bacteria. I ate flies a few times, several at once,” Nare says.

“There came a time when I started to speak about that incident to strangers. It was a treatment mechanism that I came up with. I thought that I could forget it more quickly if I told more people. But it didn’t help, it actually made things worse."

“As an individual he is not guilty. We are to blame—society, the patriarchal system—because they allowed that man to think that he had the right to touch me when I did not want him to. They tend to believe him more than me.”

Now Nare is seeing a psychologist. “Sometimes I remember some incidents during the sessions and my psychologist first thinks they are the products of my imagination. After detailed questioning we eventually realize that it actually happened, I am only now remembering it,” she says. 

Thanks to her therapy, Nare now realizes the sexual abuse she suffered as a child is still affecting her today, especially in her own relationships. She cannot say “no” to sex, even when she doesn’t want it. She is also numb during sex: her fear has shut down her body’s sensitivity to touch. 

Domestic Violence Led to Sexual Abuse

“I never desired sex. There was a period when I didn’t want to have sex at all. I avoided meeting up with my boyfriend, especially when I knew that was the purpose.”

Pogosyan, the expert from Women's Resource Center NGO, notes that domestic violence also has a negative impact on women’s sexual and reproductive health. It is not only about physical abuse. “Psychological and economical violence are the most common. In this situation a woman is regularly humiliated, her self-confidence and self-sufficient are undermined, they insult her, prohibiting her from communicating with her friends or parents,” Pogosyan explains.

Memories of the abuse she witnessed and experienced as a child still haunts 27-year-old Vardine.*

Her parents had an abusive marriage, with constant fighting and physical violence. While Vardine was not always the target of the blows, the collective impact has traumatized her.

Aside from physical violence, Vardine said her childhood was marred by the psychological abuse she suffered after accidently witnessing her parents have sex. 

“If I went out of my room, I would have seen how it is done. That happened once. I left immediately, as it was none of my business,” she says.

This incident happened when Vardine was seven or eight years old. It was the first time that she accidentally witnessed her parents having sex, but she had been hearing them having sex since she was four. 

“When I was around five or six years old, I understood what that sound was. It was disgusting. It destroyed my sleep and affected on my nerves. I started to hate nights. It impacted my sexual life and on my formation as a woman. I was disgusted by the male body and by sexual affairs for a long time. That was a huge psychological blow, which I consider to be a form of domestic violence,” says Vardine.

She notes that her longest relationship, four years, was abusive, something she only realized after they broke up.

“I never desired sex. There was a period when I didn’t want to have sex at all. I avoided meeting up with my boyfriend, especially when I knew that was the purpose. Eventually, I was manipulated into doing it… When you have a stable relationship you try to satisfy the needs of the other side,” says Vardine. 

“That is sexual-psychological abuse, as I was forced to have a long-term sexual relationship with him in order to not upset him.”

Vardine is sure that the sexual abuse she suffered in her longest relationship was the consequences of the trauma she experienced as a child. “I was a victim but I’ll never go against my body and do the things that society demands from me again.”

Women’s health expert Pogosyan says gender stereotypes are a major factor affecting women’s sexual and reproductive health.

“In most cases we are not taught that our bodies—our sexuality—are important. We are not even taught the names and functions of our sexual organs. If you have noticed, we speak about boys’ sexual organ, we give it some [informal] name. That is not the case with girls. We have this idea as if girls lack sexuality, and parents raise their girls in this way. This idea—that their sexuality is not important, their sex life is secondary, and men's sex life and sexuality is more important—is imprinted on them,” she says.

Vlogging to raise awareness

“The name [of my vlog] came out of the process; whatever I did was considered shameful. It was shameful to sit in the front of the marshrutka, to talk about sexuality, to hitchhike. In reality, it is NOT.”

Monica Hovhannisyan, 24, is a vlogger from Armenia. She started her “It’s not shameful” YouTube channel in 2018 to raise awareness about sexuality. 

When she was younger, Monica struggled to find the answers to her own questions about sexuality and the body changes.

“I wanted to start vlogging, or other type of video production, that would carry a specific message and could highlight the specific problems that people have.''

These topics were never discussed at school or at home. It was only when she was a university student that she had access to the appropriate literature and eventually she found several NGOs, which provided her with a huge amount of information.

A few years ago, as part of a wider project, Monica went to several communities in Armenia to raise women’s awareness about sexual and reproductive health. She enjoyed the experience and decided to start her channel. 

So far, she has posted two videos: a sex talk with a sex coach and an interview with a sexologist.

But the public reaction to her educational videos has been very mixed. While some viewers have praised the work she is doing, others have attacked her online. Once, one of her videos were even posted on a porn site. 

Monica remains undeterred however. She notes that the wide spread confusion in society about sexuality and sex proves people need more education.

“It is very important to learn about one’s sexuality,” she says in one vlog broadcast. “Never stop being interested in your body and emotions.”

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 *The names of the two women have been changed to honor their wish to remain anonymous.

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