A woman who has emerged victorious: “Never look back, never tolerate violence. Always go forward… Life is a struggle.” / Mariam Gevorgyan
There is a dead silence in women’s shelter.
Women survivors of domestic abuse are looking at Mariam, 27, in an attempt to catch her every word and every expression. Mariam speaks in a low voice, but with confidence.
“Never look back, never tolerate violence, and always go forward… Life is a struggle and you have to fight.”
Mariam Gevorgyan’s words have changed the lives of many women, freeing them from the grip of violence and opening new doors for the future.
Mariam has been working as an assistant social worker at Women’s Support Center refuge for already five years. She helps victims of violence throughout the recovery period, organizes workshops on women’s rights and shares her experience with them.
“I always tell women to move on, not to give in to despair, since there is always a way out of any situation. Women who have fallen victim to abuse should know that “failure” is no alternative. True, it’s very difficult in the beginning, but you have to fight to get what you want,” says Mariam.
Mariam learned hairdressing at the age of 16 and began to earn a living. The urge to fight against injustice and support equal rights has always prompted her to go forward.
“I’ve been a fighter from early childhood, always questioning the fact that men were allowed to do things that were forbidden for women. In our family things were completely different. I have three sisters: my parents raised us all without strict prohibitions and never banned us from doing anything just because we were girls. Our family was free of such traditional stereotypical attitudes,” she added.
It is hard to imagine that Mariam, a brave, confident woman full of life who now advocates for women’s rights, has gone through nine circles of hell, falling victim to brutal abuse seven years ago. Domestic violence has left its marks all over her body and face.
“When that happened to me, I was simply shocked. I could not believe someone could treat me that way,” says Mariam.
Seven years ago, Mariam got married at the age of 20, moving to Saint Petersburg in Russia from her home village of Taperakan in Ararat province. During nine months of her marriage, she suffered brutal beatings and severe torture at the hands of her husband and mother-in-law. There are scars from fork marks and iron burns on various parts of her body.
“They kept telling me I was worthless, that I was nothing, that I was made to become their slave, or that they would kill my parents or harm them in any other way, and I believed them. This is the greatest weapon of all abusive people. They tend to lower women’s self-esteem and keep her in constant fear,” says Mariam who was locked up throughout the nine months of her marriage.
Apart from brutal physical abuse, Mariam was not allowed to work and lived in the atmosphere of constant threats and intimidation.
Her husband and mother-in-law would pick at any minor issue, from “not cleaning the house fast enough”, failing to “serve the dish beautifully” or “slamming the door” to start beating her, leaving her with a black eye and a body covered in bruises.
“Every time, they would find fault with me to start the beatings. My mother-in-law used to burn my skin with lighter, and then she began burning my chest with balls of paper. She forced me to open my mouth so that she could burn my tongue with a lighter and when I closed my mouth, unable to stand the pain, she would hit me on the head with a rolling pin. She pulled my hair so hard that sometimes the skin on my head peeled off. All this was done to make me open my mouth again and let her burn my tongue. When she did burn it, she would put a bar of soap in my mouth, so that I knew “what real torment” felt like. As if that wasn’t enough, she would shut my mouth with her hands to make me swallow the soap…” recalls Mariam, adding that she was allowed to sleep in one bed with her husband only during the first two weeks of her marriage. Then she was forced to stand in a corner all night, but that caused leg swelling, so they put a chair in the room and she slept sitting for months.
Mariam was only allowed to shower with cold water and do laundry by hand. She had two minutes to finish washing the clothes; otherwise, she would be beaten up again. Whenever she failed to wash off bloodstains from her clothes fast enough, they resumed beating her.
“Nine months later, I ran away from that house. That day, the door was left open by accident and everyone had left the house. When I saw the door open, I was so happy that I simply bounced out of the house, not even thinking about where I was running. All that time I was struggling to go home, to return to my parents. I had made up my mind to obtain justice as soon as I managed to return home, so that they got justly deserved punishment for their actions. If it were not for my escape, only God knows what would happen to me,” says Mariam.
After her escape, Mariam finally arrived in Armenia where she contacted the police, and an investigation was subsequently opened based on her testimony. Torture and beatings had changed her to an extent that her own parents barely recognized her when she arrived at the airport.
In Armenia, Mariam received psychological, social and legal assistance at Women’s Support Center and went through various stages of rehabilitation.
“I have never trusted the police. At the beginning, they seemed to empathize with me and were shocked at what had happened, but then they decided to reduce the sentence. They have yet to pay me compensation on civil action,” says Mariam.
According to the court ruling, Haykanush Mikaelyan, Mariam’s mother-in-law who had repeatedly abused and tortured her, was sentenced to four years in prison, but due to general amnesty, Mikaelyan was released from jail several months later. Mariam’s husband, Davit Ziroyan was not imprisoned at all.
Mariam argues that the police and law enforcement agencies need to undergo special training before dealing with cases of domestic violence.
“It is necessary to educate both the police and medical personnel, but all this cannot be done solely by non-governmental organizations. This should be carried out on the state level. If they adopted the Law against Domestic Violence, raised awareness of women on their rights, provided retraining for specialists, and such incidents did not go unreported, we would be able to achieve progress: there would be a decline in the level of violence. Today, however, our society does not consider a slap on the face or psychological pressure as abuse. They consider it violence only when a woman is killed,” says Mariam.
Public attitudes and stereotypes have forced her to become a spokesperson for women’s rights. Today, she not only offers assistance to victims of abuse, but also strives to change public perception of the problem.
As part of her work in the shelter of Women’s Support Center, Mariam teaches women to live independently, helping them reveal their stronger sides and abilities, as well as develop the perception that they are strong enough to achieve their goals.
Mariam has become a role model for many women who successfully underwent rehabilitation, found a job after leaving the shelter, finally left their abusive husbands, became more independent and started living separately.
Alongside her job in women’s shelter, Mariam continues working as a hairdresser. She has also studied at Erebuni College and was trained to work as an assistant nurse. She admits that much has changed in the last five years.
“I’ve always had that stubborn streak, but I’ve changed a lot. I’ve become more striving, more prepared to life and self-reliant,” says Mariam, who plans to obtain higher education in near future.
She underlines that no one is safe from violence, since this is something that happens to anyone, regardless of social background, age or gender.
“What is most important is to find a way out of that situation, not to endure violence and to realize that you have the right to live freely and happily,” says Mariam.