Economic Empowerment of Women: Lessons from Armenia

“Economic Empowerment of Women: Lessons from Armenia”: Panel Discussion at the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Forum, United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW61)

An audience of about 40 people gathered in Yerevan Hall of the Armenian Convention Center in New York City on 17 March 2017 to hear panelists discuss strategies and ongoing projects that involve the economic empowerment of women in Armenia. Panelists came from backgrounds in entrepreneurship, domestic violence protection and support, and professional women’s organizations. This parallel event for the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women was organized by the Armenia International Women’s Association.

Moderator Nicole Vartanian, Executive Director of Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University, welcomed everyone with an overall introduction of the event, after which panelists shared their expertise on significant ways to increase the numbers, and involvement, of women all throughout Armenia in entrepreneurial, economic and social ways, and discussed challenges that must be overcome. The discussion was followed by a Q&A session open to audience members.

(left to right): Jennifer Phillips (AIWA Executive Director), Sylvia Tirakian (Artisan Food Product Developer), Nicole E. Vartanian (Columbia University, Panel Moderator), Ani Jilozian (Women’s Support Center, Yerevan), and Camille Wallen (Global Monitoring Manager, HALO Trust) photo: Lily Kamalyan

Moderator Vartanian presented a context for the panel by highlighting several complex factors that influence the necessity of the work the panelists are doing. These include:

  1. Demographic data shows a predominately elderly female population in Armenia, yet with fewer girls being born, a result of sex-selection practices and boy-preferences that have been increasing since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
  2. A shrinking labor force and a steady rate of citizens and workers leaving the country. Women are 54% of the working age population of Armenia, yet only 40% of these women are employed or looking for work. Those who do work earn 36% less than men. Responsibilities of family care fall unequally on women and in turn discourage and dis-incentivize even educated Armenian women from seeking employment options outside the home. Citing a survey recently conducted, it was revealed that the vast majority of respondents agreed that when jobs are scarce, men should have more of a priority and right to become employed, showing deep-rooted patriarchal values entrenched in society.
  3. In terms of gross national product (GDP), 14% of potential GDP is currently lost in Armenia, according to the World Bank, due to limited opportunities for women in the workforce.
  4. There is shrinkage in access and quality of tertiary education, and a lack of women-owned businesses and opportunities for women to use their acquired skills for economic and personal growth. Currently, even though there are 136 women to 130 men enrolled in tertiary education, these numbers are not being translated to value in the economy.

Panelist Sylvia Tirakian is an Artisanal Food Product Developer for Harvest Song, a specialty food company, who helps develop products for the North American specialty food market, assisting farmers and companies in developing countries to create quality products through sustainable farming, engaging with and educating workers at a grassroots level.

Her main points included:

  1. The importance of connecting with workers on a human level, creating an environment of respect and social responsibility, and empowering them to create their own products and execute their own vision.
  2. Disappointment in Armenian companies not meeting standards of comfortable workplaces, child-care access, accurate payrolls and other aspects of management.
  3. The importance of creating a partnership between employers and employees, “speaking to them and getting to know them, understanding what they need to contribute the most to their job, in order to create a culture where employees are comfortable and therefore blossom.”

Panelist Camille Warren, the Global Monitoring and Evaluation Manager at the Halo Trust, a humanitarian landmine clearing organization, described her work traveling the world to develop methods and set standards for the Mine Action Center. Her responsibilities include measuring the impact of demining an area on the surrounding community.

Consistent with the focus of CSW on women’s issues, Warren described the employment of women in demining roles around the world and especially in Nagorno-Karabagh, a de facto independent state with an Armenian ethnic majority, with the highest mine casualty rates per capita in the world. A third of landmine accident victims are children. Since its founding, Halo Trust has worked to de-mine over 19 countries around the world; work in Nagorno-Karabagh began in 1996, with much more to be done before the estimated completion date of 2020.

Warren emphasized:

  1. The struggle for funding to continue de-mining non-traditional Nagorno-Karabagh, from sources like USAid, the UK government, and private donations, mentioning the help of the One Armenia Campaign that is currently undergoing efforts to raise money to clear the land, minefield by minefield.
  2. Due to this campaign, next month there will be an addition of 10 new female deminers to the team. This establishment of a team of all-female deminers is quite an accomplishment in such a rural, traditional region, and in a male-dominated work environment.
  3. The challenges of recruiting these women, but the positive ability of these projects to fulfill the need for economic employment in the area; to give women the opportunity to do the same work and get paid the same wage as their male counterparts; and to spark a revolution within the male management in terms of valuing the work of women and their contribution to the community.

Consistent with Tirakian’s main point, Warren spoke to the importance of companies to “engage with the community, gain their trust and show women they can complete any job just as well as men.” She hopes the demining work has created a sustainable mentality within men to view their own female family members in a new light, allowing them to go to work and create more economic opportunities for the region.

Warren then played a short documentary video, available on the Halo Trust website, consisting of interviews of the women on the demining team in Nagorno-Karabagh.

Panelist Jennifer Phillips, Executive Director of the Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA), with experience in politics, service and policy with state governments and non-profit sectors, described her current work with AIWA. This work focuses on helping Armenian women to create a network and support group for those women seeking leadership roles, entrepreneurial skills and personal development. AIWA is shifting to support women in these decision-making roles to create systemic change in their community rather than piece-by-piece improvements.

The following are initiatives AIWA has in Armenia:

  1. A Women’s Support Center, a full service domestic violence center, in Yerevan.
  2. The Women’s Entrepreneurship Program, supported with the American University of Armenia (AUA), an educational program started in 2006 that teaches Armenian women skills, planning development, and general knowledge in entrepreneurship and marketing, once a month, with mentors, with a chance to receive funding for a business idea presented at the end of the program.
  3. Other programs which highlight personal development and train leadership skills in Armenian women.

AIWA hopes to extend these programs to women outside of Yerevan, in more rural regions where women need access to resources the most, and to create a network of mentors at all levels of creating a business, and educate not just men about the importance of women being involved in the workforce, but also mothers-in-law of these women, who may perpetuate the patriarchal notion of a women’s place in the home and not in the workforce.

Phillips relayed two success stories of Armenian women who had gone through AIWA programs who developed business and felt empowered by the education they received and the support of their fellow female Armenian entrepreneurs.

Panelist Ani Jilozian is a research and data specialist at the Women’s Support Center in Yerevan, supported by AIWA. A Fulbright scholar, public health consultant and sexual health educator, she advocates for the end to violence against women.

Jilozian explained the importance of the Women’s Support Center as it offers:

  1. Educational opportunities for women and children victims of domestic violence
  2. Walk-in services
  3. Two shelters
  4. Psychological, social and legal counseling services and support

She believes that before Armenian women achieve economic empowerment, the structural barriers preventing them from doing so must be broken down. These barriers come from every level of the community, from core and extended family members, and from the government. These barriers include that:

  1. To date, there is no law on domestic violence and agencies do not accurately investigate cases or proceed further legally. A law is scheduled to be passed by 2018, yet it is difficult to protect those who are current victims and punish perpetrators.
  2. On a community level, women who leave their abusers face numerous problems, including that they have a hard time enrolling as students in school and finding work or education; families deny them resources; and they do not have access to property. A lack of a support system causes many to stay in these abusive relationships.

Despite these challenges, Jilozian notes that there are small, largely grassroots efforts for women to gain economic empowerment in Armenia.

For example, The Women’s Support Center has partnered with the Near East Foundation, supporting 120 survivors of domestic violence in the last three years who have completed their Business and Entrepreneurship program. Half of the women who completed this program were prepared for employment, or to start their own businesses. Benefits of participation included:

  1. Seed money to start businesses or fund their education
  2. Being taught how to bring in an income from tasks they already do, including crafts, sewing, and food services.

Jilozian attributes the success of the economic empowerment program to staff working with survivors to assess the level of risk and trauma. Women must be physically and emotionally ready to reintegrate into society. Also, the amount of long-term work the staff at the Women’s Support Center does with each survivor, even before they enroll in the Business and Entrepreneurship Program, has led to a higher chance of success and reintegration for these women.

She stressed that it can be “challenging to see light at the end of the tunnel” due to the structural barriers and noted that “until women and girls are, as a whole, are allowed to achieve greatness, and to break free of this patriarchal system that is set up against them, we’re not going to see economic empowerment of women in Armenia at national level.” She advocates for: changing gender stereotypes, pushing for reform, and increasing the amount of women in government and leadership roles in Armenia. She concluded with a success story of a domestic violence survivor, named Hasmik, who has gone through immense hardship to a better life and still faces obstacles to support her parents and newly reunited son, yet who continues to “fight the good fight, every day.”

Questions posed by moderator Nicole Vartanian:

Q1: “There is an election coming up in Armenia, can you speak to how women’s issues are being addressed or ignored, and what can we gauge from the current political landscape?”

Responses: Jilozian spoke about the defunct gender quota system in Parliament, whereby 20% of total members should be a woman but currently it is only 11 percent. The law is being changed to set a quota of 30% in the next two years. Nevertheless, women run for office and drop out at the last minute and men take those positions. Another aspect is the deep-seeded patriarchal society: women who do take those government positions are not very gender-sensitive, even sometimes less so than their male counterparts. The theory is that they had to prove themselves to become successful, especially in a male dominated field of work, which inherently adheres them to the same gender-stereotypic roles and perpetuates inequality.

Phillips added a personal story about working with a woman in her program who wanted to run for mayor in her village, noting that the people and the system were obstacles that made this woman hesitant to accomplish her goal, not her personal qualifications.

Moderator Vartanian touched on the importance of also training women who are already in office, prompting Warren to tell a story about asking a female mayor of a rural village in Nagorno-Karabagh if they could recruit women to form a team of deminers. The mayor said “no” to recruiting women, and said the men were available. In the next village they moved on to, they recruited 10 female deminers “who now ironically make more [money] than the mayor herself.” The mayor was apparently indoctrinated into her view, possibly because of the rural setting and potential backlash from male villagers, a scenario that Halo Trust has dealt with on many occasions.

Tirakian added the experience of talking to her female employees and how they would complain about their mothers-in-law, aunts or other females who perpetuate the patriarchy through many traditional expectations they themselves were pressured by. She stressed that both men and women must be educated about gender roles, boundaries and respect, not just in Armenia but also in Armenian households everywhere.

Q2: “What is the key to scaling up, non-negotiable terms, past the individual level that has to be in place for there to be a transformation in mindset?”

Jilozian responded emphasizing a multi-faceted approach: legislative reforms; raising awareness about gender equality and gender based violence; and changing perceptions about the value of women in the home, in business and government. It is crucial to change these mindsets from top-down methods, both through the government and using grassroots efforts.

Warren added an example from Sri Lanka -- another very traditional society like Armenia -- where women were recruited to fight during the civil war in that country. Afterwards, they returned to their roles in the home since were no jobs available. For Halo Trust’s work in Sri Lanka, the rate of female to male deminers was about 20%, and the turnover rate was faster since female staff would get married and have children and rarely come back to work. In 2014, a strike by the workers allowed them to get rid of “trouble-makers” and understand what they could do to change the work environment that will benefit their workers, resulting in a 45% increase in the number of female staff members. There is still a challenge in maintaining women as workers, since the inadequate funding situation makes it hard to support women after childbirth.

Phillips emphasized the need for a comprehensive effort as soon as possible, citing the birth rate and out-migration as current risk factors that make the opportunities for domestic economic opportunities worse. Networking is essential, as well as putting pressure on the government to change policy, especially about domestic violence.

Vartanian mentioned the need to talk about these issues that cause problems and not hide behind the shame factor that guides so much of the Armenian way of life.

Q3: To Tirakian, “What do you think employees got from working with you as a women entrepreneur, do you think there were any seeds planted entrepreneurially for us to scale up?”

She answered this question by noting how local Armenian women are not any different from Diasporan Armenians on a human level. In terms of entrepreneurship, “they are very passionate and excited.” Involving them in their work is the best way to empower them. She expressed how Diasporan Armenians, even with the best of intentions, constantly bombard local Armenians with knowledge and condescension. This makes the local Armenians feel inferior, which is the opposite of what needs to be done, since their confidence must be raised for them to feel empowered to accomplish their visions. It is crucial to create a partnership with them, as an equal, and watch them come up with amazing ideas.

Vartanian added this engagement has to be a focused outside of Yerevan and in rural regions as well. Developing skills across the country can help stop migration and economic turmoil faster.

Q4: The question was posed to Halo Trust, to elaborate on successfully recruiting women to become deminers. “What strategies did you employ, and did you receive any feedback?”

Warren responded that she was not the best to speak on the strategies, but direct community engagement is the overall strategy. Halo Trust wanted to make sure that they were involving people from the affected areas, who wanted to be role models. They purposefully wanted a full team of women and went around until the team was formed.

Q5: “What can diaspora do to support equality bodies?”

Jilozian advocated for continuing to build the capacity of civil society representatives: lobby committees; send complaints to the European court; and work with think tanks and academics, lawyers, etc. There are plenty of “tools in our tool-box that we don’t even know exist” and lots of avenues that we can explore. She added to push for funding for women’s organizations and LGBT organizations across the board, not just in Armenia.

Phillips mentioned that AIWA listens to what the women in Armenia want, being culturally sensitive but continuing to push boundaries, do research, carry out education campaigns, reach out to men, and be part of a broader coalition.

Q6: “In a Pre-Independence context, women in the Soviet Union were involved in combat, the education level was very high, and women were in high positions. What did independence do to women’s perception of empowerment?”

Tirakian answered by recalling her female teachers and doctors when she grew up in Armenia. What she believes has changed is that more women now work in entrepreneurial positions, in smaller businesses, rather than for the government. The Internet has given them a much more global window and has exposed them to influences other than the Soviet culture.

Jilozian added that women working in these positions during the Soviet Union did not do so from a feminist perspective; they had to work, to provide, to fill their role for the good of the state. These numbers of women in the workforce were not coming from a place of women’s rights or gender equality; instead, there was more of a mentality of “We need to have this for the betterment for the state.” The same patriarchal norms existed; they were just hidden, for example, in domestic violence and of course, these norms were exacerbated by socio-economic conditions, war, and unemployment, but reflected a fundamental issue of power and control. This “existed then and exists now.” Nevertheless, we can learn from the Soviet period: women had skills and worked well in positions of leadership, but it is important to remember it still was not a wonderful point in history.

Moderator Vartanian closed the panel by thanking the panelists for their remarks and the gathered audience.

For the reporter, attending this event was immensely relatable and inspiring. As an Armenian woman, to hear about how to empower individual women to work, to be proud of their culture and their contribution to society, as well as to take care of their physical and mental well-being was educational and motivational. Armenia can make large strides towards improving their economy, and it is clear they need to involve women at all levels and sectors. It was beneficial to see successful Armenian women in their respective fields having an effect and extending a helping hand to further progress in the nation.

Reported by Lily Kamalyan, an IAAP member of the Student Division pursuing her master’s degree in the Department of Clinical Psychology, Columbia University Teachers College, and student in Professor Judy Kuriansky’s Fieldwork class on “Psychology and the United Nations.” As a first generation Armenian-American woman, Lily hopes to continue to advocate for awareness and advancement of gender equality and good-health and well-being across the globe, especially in Armenia.