By Susan Klein
In the fall of 2020, as the COVID-19 infection rate was peaking in Armenia, the country was rocked to its core by the outbreak of what has become known as the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War—which Armenia neither wanted nor was prepared for. By the time a ceasefire agreement was reached last November, with Armenian casualties in the thousands, the loss of strategic territory, the presence of Russian peacekeepers, and mass displacement of uprooted communities, few could take notice of another longstanding battle still underway—the fight for gender equality for Armenia’s women.
Among those on the front lines of this socio-economic reckoning are a group of women daring to take the uncertain post-war situation into their own hands, with financial emancipation as the first step in leveling the playing field in commerce and business, and, ultimately, gaining influence in shaping Armenia’s future at a pivotal historic moment.
“Substantive decisions about national security and economic viability over the next critical five years must have the entire population pulling its weight,” says Yevgenya Jenny Paturyan, Assistant Professor at the American University of Armenia, Political Science and International Affairs Program. “That includes Armenia’s women, whose resilience and ingenuity during a time of national crises and severe loss are nothing short of astounding. Armenian women always played key roles in the fate of the nation, more so in recent years and months. Women’s participation was instrumental in the peaceful Velvet Revolution of 2018. Women are overrepresented in the healthcare and service sectors, so they are, literally, taking care of the nation’s needs, wounds, hurts and losses right now. Women are struggling to keep COVID-19 at bay and are nursing the nation back to life, with hopes and dreams of a better future.”
A year after that peaceful Velvet Revolution, the new pro-democracy government signed on to international agreements against domestic violence, like the historic Istanbul Convention, despite much pushback and controversy from conservative forces— another persistent phenomenon of Armenia’s patriarchal grip on society.
In working toward its progressive goal to become a thriving, economically stable democracy, 21st century Armenia is a country of contrasts, none more stark than those that face its women, who make up 53% of the population. With a nation-wide literacy rate of more than 99% and a cultural tradition of women’s rights that dates back to ancient times, Armenia nevertheless adheres to socio-economic gender discrimination that can be seen in everything from lower wages in every business sector to its ranking as having the third-highest rate of sex-selective abortions in the world.
As a result, from the cosmopolitan capital of Yerevan to the outer provinces, Armenian women live with one foot in the future and one cemented in the gender dynamics and hierarchical systems of the past. A woman with an advanced degree and a professional career most likely remains shackled by economic hardships compounded by subordination to spouse and in-laws in a typically Armenian multigenerational family structure. There is a relatively small fraction of representation of women in Parliament and most female employees of the state make up the rank-and-file bureaucracy earning little more than subsistence wages. Yet Armenia was one of 191 countries to sign the ‘Millennium Declaration’ with a stated goal of promoting gender equality and eliminating all gender disparity in education and in the workplace, no later than 2015.
To counter the intractable inequality, in recent decades, international agencies and NGOs have reached out to Armenia’s women with programs to assist them with a host of gender-related social issues. To name but a few, the United Nations Women Fund for Gender Equality helps women overcome challenges in the most remote areas of Armenia, and the Near East Foundation UK works with Armenia-based civil society organizations to assist victims of domestic violence and abuse. By far the most robust and high-profile program is the one created by the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), the global non-profit founded more than a century ago to promote the prosperity and well-being of Armenians worldwide. Relative to other internationally-based NGOs, AGBU’s programs are funded and managed almost exclusively by Armenians for Armenians, and while it operates in and provides services to Armenians in more than 31 countries, AGBU’s current women’s initiatives are focused on raising Armenia’s female empowerment quotient, which falls too short of the potential to which the international women’s movement aspires.
The organization has responded to the ongoing socio-economic challenges of scarce employment opportunities and gender bias, along with the hardships of women who became sole breadwinners as a result of the mass emigration of males in search of work outside of the country or who have been left to run households due to war casualties. Following several years of development, in March of 2020, AGBU launched EmpowerHer, a comprehensive initiative that recognizes that the transformation of women’s roles in Armenia would require holistic change.
The program has set out to address and improve every aspect of women’s lives: from the financial investment and moral support of female entrepreneurs working in culturally traditional businesses; occupational and technical training for 21st century jobs in Armenia’s rapidly growing technology sector; soft-skill coaching for those women entering the workforce for the first time; along with programs designed to model and foster the highest values and behaviors of gender equality.
The AGBU’s EmpowerHer initiative adds innovative new programs while enhancing some of its already-successful ones. Informed by Armenia’s goal of establishing a knowledge-based economy to be competitive with global standards, the program addresses issues in health, societal behavior, and financial stability along with occupational training.
The first pilot program, which has grown exponentially in the last four years, is the AGBU Women Entrepreneurs (WE) program, offering radical support to women in micro-enterprises who create products that fall primarily into the more traditionally female categories of hand-made goods. The free program for those selected includes classes with interactive learning tools, guest speakers, and workshops; assistance with the development of business and marketing plans, targets, and goals; networking opportunities within the industry or market sector; plus monetary grants to start or expand their business whether to upgrade equipment, improve production methods, or source better materials.
A rigorous application process ensures that only applicants who demonstrate strong potential to gain financial independence through the micro-enterprise or home business are invited for a personal interview. Although criteria has been carefully drawn, with the pandemic raging and bombs raining down in Nagorno-Karabakh, the program’s director Tatevik Manukyan was fearful that applications for its 100 spots would dwindle to a trickle.
“We were shocked, in a good way,” Manukyan reports. “In the midst of war and the pandemic, we received 1,000 applications from across every age and regional demographic in Armenia. We had applicants from the most remote regions to the capital; from highly-educated single women in their 20s to married women with adult children looking to enter the workforce for the first time.”
Of the applications received, 400 women were interviewed for 100 coveted spots. Of those selected, their businesses are producing everything from jewelry and leather goods to handbags, textiles, and artisanal tea. One company makes bricks being used to fortify those communities decimated in the recent war, another bakes world-famous Armenian Lavash bread, which was rushed to help feed uprooted families who fled from ancestral lands overtaken by Azeri forces. Whether for start-ups or scale-ups, the WE program shows creative women entrepreneurs how reverence for their cultural traditions can also be self-sustaining and empowering.
The pandemic has added another unexpected test to the mix: flexibility and ingenuity. Those with customer-facing business models like a bake shop or skincare boutique had to quickly shift their market operations entirely online with the assistance of mentors from AGBU’s global network of experts and advisors, who offer the care and guidance that may be absent from participants’ lives.
“When my father passed away, I made a life-changing decision to continue his business,” says Karine Grigoryan of Nagorno-Karabakh, whose family produces bricks. “I struggled to carry on and would have never succeeded without proper education and the constant encouragement and support of the AGBU staff and my peers.”
Here again, despite the dual crises of war and pandemic, the application pool was flooded with qualified candidates: 532 applications for a scant 50 spots. The coding program’s selection funnel was equally rigorous, including a written test, an assessment of math skills, and an interview. Hayrapetyan was impressed with both the variety and qualifications of applicants.
“Not only were the selected participants all college graduates; they included 33 women with master’s degrees, and six with PhDs,” she remarks. “To me, that underscores the need for programs that meet marketplace demands. Any degree is only worth something in theory, until you can put it to use.”
The IT, QA, and Coding Classes are taught online, which encourages applicants from across Armenia. And to supplement the tech training, and further ensure Women Coders graduates are top candidates for immediate employment, the program requires each participant to pass six soft-skill modules: Business Ethics, part of which is raising awareness on sexual harassment; Self-confidence, Financial Literacy, Critical Thinking, Pitching Skills, Business Email Writing, and general Microsoft Office application competence. Videotaped sessions assure the graduates can effectively move through a corporate screening process. For program participants in the regions who were shaken by both the war and the pandemic, the rigorous program became a salvation.
“When I look back, it feels like I passed through hell this year,” says recent coding graduate Arpine Alaverdyan of Yerevan. “But I do so by walking through a shield-tunnel, created by AGBU, through mindfulness, connection, and care. I truly feel empowered, and ready to take on whatever the world has for me.”
The first class of Women Coders is already in the workforce, with placements at organizations including Volo, Instigate, and Wamys.
In addition to the WE and Women’s Coding programs, AGBU EmpowerHer provides resources offered through proven in-country partners including pre-marriage counseling, pre- and post-natal services and access to medical professionals through regional hygiene centers; after-school and in-class curriculum to introduce and normalize gender equity behaviors at an early age; ongoing support to victims of domestic violence, plus coaching and classes for civic engagement opportunities through another EmpowerHer program module called AGBUChangemakers.
AGBU Armenia’s Director of Operations Lena Baghdassaryan considers the breakthrough popularity of the EmpowerHer program in this especially fraught year as recognition and acceptance of a pragmatic, systemized approach to addressing the gender issues that hamper women’s progress in Armenia. “Protests in the street will not prove the immense worth of Armenia’s women in the workplace and the marketplace. It must be earned with discipline, creativity and knowledge and other essential skills that can be explored in a safe and trusted space like AGBU.”
AGBU’s innovative, synergistic initiatives have tremendous potential to play an effective role in helping Armenia achieve its goal of becoming a 21st century global competitor in business, energy, research science and technology, and more, according to Professor Paturyan. She goes on to note that as Armenia regains momentum in key industries that draw upon the country’s highly competitive innovative technology sector, its women’s empowerment movement is on a parallel track. “Ideally, these progressive forces will reach a tipping point at about the same time, unleashing a seismic social and economic shift that will bring greater prosperity, justice, and equality for all.”
AGBU Central Board member and EmpowerHer Co-Chair Arda Haratunian of New York sums up prospects for success from another perspective. “In 2020, more than one thousand resolute Armenian women flocked to our program as a beacon in the fog of war and a pandemic. If the crises of this year did not deter them, it’s hard to imagine anything could.”
Photos courtesy of Armenian General Benevolent Union