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Witch hunt on women’s rights activists in Armenia

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Women's Resource Center participating in a demonstration for increased equality. Yerevan, Armenia. Photo: Svetlana Antonyan.

Women's Resource Center participating in a demonstration for increased equality. Yerevan, Armenia. Photo: Svetlana Antonyan.

20 May, Armenia adopted a gender equality law for equal rights and equal opportunities for men and women. This sparked a heated debate regarding the concept of gender, which in recent weeks has developed into campaigns that include outright threats agains women’s organisations and named activists.

The anti-gender campaigns have mainly used social media to spread their message. Videos have been circulating with distorted explanations of the concept of gender, among other things linking it to pedophelia and bestiality.

The campaigns also mock and ridicule the work of LGBT and women’s rights activists. One of the Facebook pages that have been put up, incourages its followers to set fire to or in other ways attack supporters of the term gender, who are called “traitors of the nation” and are said to “engage in sexual abuse of children”.

Photos of activists

“These groups publish photos on social networks of activists, politicians, and generally anyone who even dares to talk about gender equality. It has the marks of a witch hunt and it hinders our work. Girls and young women that we work with, call us in panic, and we’re trying our best to calm them down. Some of our sponsors have asked us not to advertise that they support us” says Lara Aharonian, co-leader of the women’s rights organisation Women’s Resource Center (WRC), and one of the targeted activists.

“It’s ironic that we are accused of promoting sexual abuse against children, when we have been fighting that for many years. In 2010, in the wake of a high profile case of sexual abuse against minors committed by a school teacher, we intiated and led the work of a legal team that looked at making changes in some articles of Armenia’s Criminal Code, to ensure a fair trial for the victims and to make the punishment fit the gravity of these crimes” says Gohar Shahnazaryan, the other leader of WRC.

Employees at Women’s Resource Center have reported the threats to the police, and an investigation is ongoing.

Politicians want law amendments

The campaigns of the anti-gender groups have also reached political leaders. Even though the gender equality law was passed in the National Assembly with 108 votes against one, there has now been statements from both the Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, Filaret Berikyan, and Naira Zohrabyan, member of parliament from the Prosperous Armenia party, calling for amendments because of the protests.

Some parliamentarians have also taken action not only against the law, but also against the women’s organisations that lobbied for it to be adopted. Ike Babukhanyan (Republican Party) have called for an investigation to check the activities of Women’s Resource Center, accusing them of promoting sexual deviation and homosexuality among under-aged girls.

Homophobia widespread

Since homophobia is widespread in Armenian society – according to the 2011 Caucasus Barometer 97 percent are against homosexuality –  it’s easy to score political points on the issue.

“To mobilize the masses against LGBT persons is very easy in Armenia. And it’s a way to divert attention from the endemic corruption and other economic problems” says Lara Aharonian.

To strengthen cooperation with the European Union, Armenia is currently adopting a series of laws on human rights. EU is Armenia’s biggest trade partner and the two parties are in the process of negotiating an Association Agreement.

Julia Lapitskii/Malin Ekerstedt

Pride and prejudice Belgrade style

Tags: , , , , Categories: The Balkans

Belgrade police and anti-gay rights crowd

The block surrounding the cultural center in Belgrade where the exhibition Ecce Homo was displayed was roped of by police. Many people were gathering, displaying anti-gay rights opinions. Photo: Stina Magnusson Buur/The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation.

We received a blog post from Stina Magnuson Buur, working for the Swedish women and peace organization The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation in Belgrade. Yesterday the Gay Pride parade planned to take place in Belgrade on Saturday was banned by authorities citing security concerns. The parade would have marked the culmination of the ongoing Serbian Pride week, where seminars and events on the theme of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons human rights have been taking place.

This is the report from Stina Magnuson Buur:

“There’s a creeping sensation going through my body. I am meeting a friend at a cozy outdoor café around the corner from where I live. Tonight is the opening of the exhibition Ecce Homo, by the Swedish artist Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin (a series of photos incorporating LGBT persons into biblical scenes) at the Centre for Cultural Decontamination in Belgrade. I usually love to go there, it’s a really nice place for activists, with a cozy courtyard, a large showroom and a lovely atmosphere.

Today, my entire block has been fenced off: my street, the street where the cultural center is located and two other streets. The place is literally crawling with “ninja turtles” – police officers with vests, helmets and shields. The whole town center is full of them, there are easily over a hundred just in our neighborhood, and I can count to 10 police officers on horseback riding down the closest main street, in addition to all the officers in cars and on foot.

My friend does not want to go to the exhibition directly when it opens, for fear of being filmed and end up on youtube. Instead we stay for a beer at the café. There’s a large crowd gathering. Someone in the crowd is being interviewed and there are TV cameras and photographers everywhere. A man from the Orthodox Church is making a speech against homosexuals in general and Ecce Homo in particular, and when he’s finished everyone applauds – including all the people at the café.

Two perfectly made-up, smiling women in their 40s are handing out leaflets with the message that the Pride parade must be stopped (which it also has been, after a ban earlier the same day by Serbian authorities citing security concerns).

I feel like I’m being suffocated by all this hate. It’s like a parallel version of my normally so friendly Belgrade neighborhood. People at the café are in high spirits, the man next to us offering everyone roasted almonds, and everyone look perfectly normal. But my friend and I feel like total aliens and I can only think about the staff at the café not caring about the flyers being handed out and that we usually go here me and my family and that the waiters always are so sweet and play with our son. That all these seemingly ordinary people are behind all this hate. That they devote energy to try to hinder other people from making life choices that do not really affect dem. And I wish that football hooligans were the only haters in this world, how much simpler everything would be!

The creeping sensation in my body is escalating and we leave the café. We approach the barricades from another street, without any cafés or crowds and the police officers let us through when I tell them that I live there. There are still ninja turtles everywhere and we feel like all eyes are on us. But we continue to the cultural center. It is packed with people, familiar faces, happy faces and no police officers. I can breathe again.”