Armenia Must Do More To Protect the Children

A young activist working as a volunteer at a residential school for orphans and children with mental disabilities exposes allegations of physical and sexual abuse. A nationwide scandal follows with calls for a full investigation. What happens next? No, the whistleblower isn’t praised but charged with slander and threatened with five years in prison.

That was the situation in Armenia last year when activist Mariam Sukhudyan took the allegations of child abuse to the national media. But this month, after a long campaign, justice finally triumphed, and Sukhudyan was vindicated. The charges were dropped, and an investigation was opened into a former teacher.

A few months ago, I visited the school, an old Soviet institution on a windswept hilltop outside Yerevan, to find out what had happened there. The staff, desperate to prove that no abuse took place, gave me a guided tour and insisted that Sukhudyan and other activists who also worked as volunteers were deluded.

“Because they were so young and inexperienced, they didn’t understand that every child here has mental disabilities and very active imaginations,” argued one staff member.

Disturbing video testimony from one of the children told a different story, however.

The scandal exposed the grim conditions in some of Armenia’s aging juvenile institutions, which child welfare experts believe should be transformed or shut down. The government has been trying to reform them, but not fast enough. Sukhudyan, who is also a committed environmentalist, told me that she felt she had to speak out on behalf of those who could not.

This view was echoed by the U.S. ambassador to Armenia, who recently presented Sukhudyan with the embassy’s 2010 Woman of Courage award and spoke of her “determination to act in order to right a wrong, in spite of the personal sacrifices it entailed.”

Sukhudyan hopes that the case against her has helped open up a closed system to public scrutiny.

“We can already see some changes,” she said. “Interest and attention toward children in special schools has considerably grown, people are more informed about the situation.”

But although she no longer faces a jail sentence, it’s clear that those in power still need to do more to protect those who can’t protect themselves.

Matthew Collin is a journalist based in Tbilisi.

See also:

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