Sargsyan, the Public Relations Manager at the Radio Mariam in Gyumri, has found herself at odds with traditional gender norms throughout much of her life and has worked to engage with local youth, especially other young women.
“In Gyumri there are a lot of organizations for youth that deal with [gender equality] and discuss these things but there’s not locations or centers for kids to go to.”
Sargsyan continued, “Here at the Radio Mariam, we teach young people how to articulate themselves, we also host a discussion club and…engage with rural youth because a lot of the time they can be left out.”
Young women, aged 16-30 make up one of the largest single demographics in Armenia but while they still find themselves lagging behind their male peers in many ways, they also do see progress made over women from previous generations.
“The difference [between my generation and my parents] is great because we want to realize our dreams but in the Soviet Union when my parents grew up, they couldn’t do what they want and there were some rules that they had to do and they had to follow them” says Anoushik Haroutiunian, a veterinary assistant at Vet Vat animal clinic in Gyumri.
Haroutiunian spent the early part of her youth studying for a different career than her current occupation but in recent years, a life long passion for animals helped her decide to change paths to veterinary medicine.
Even with more opportunities for education and employment, Anoushik still faces social pressure from her community to leave her training for family life.
“I am older, I am 28 and here people think that it’s the age for marriage, children and not to start anything from the beginning… nearly all my girlfriends are married and have families and children. For them its strange that I decided to start new work and a new education at this age.”
While in theory social conservative social norms and equal rights for men and women exist in two totally separate spheres, some researchers have found consistent examples of social influence on many of the nation’s laws.
In a 2010 article by Svetlana Aslanyan, PhD, founder of the Center for the Development of Civil Society, Aslanyan highlights that obstacles against gender equality are often created by the very institutions meant to implement gender equality in society. Stating that “Although the Armenian Constitution states that men and women are equal, strong mechanisms to bring this about in the daily life of Armenian society are non-existent.” Aslanyan went on to point to repeated instances of government projects and advisory bodies which were either cut short from meeting their goals or denied the proper resources to perform their duties.
This theme of unaccountability for gender equality coming from the national level appears to have continued into the Gender Policy Action Plan for 2011-2015 which was produced by the government and submitted to the United Nations with goals as simple as “Harmonization of the legal Acts currently in force with international norms; prevention of gender-based violence and human trafficking.” In other words, organizing national legal framework around international norms such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Violence against Women (CEDAW) which Armenia is already a signatory to.
Earlier this year when a bill aimed to strengthen Armenia’s domestic violence legislation to international norms was introduced, it was sunk by opposition in the National Assembly for being an “European attempt to undermine traditional Armenian values” as said by Arman Boshian, founder of the Pan-Armenian Parents’ Committee. This despite the fact that the passage of the bill was a key contingent to Armenia receiving 11 million Euros in foreign aid.
While the issue of domestic violence remains a contentious one, especially for the some 60% of Armenian women who reported some form of domestic abuse in a 2011 OSCE survey, issues related to gender equality start for most women well before their wedding day.
While in some regards, women’s rights have existed legally as far back as 443 B.C with the code of Shahapivan and was very much cemented in the constitution of the First Armenian Republic along with Soviet law which followed it, progress for gender equality has remained bogged down in conservative social norms and generally not treated as a legitimate priority by many of those in power within the government.
However back in Gyumri, cautious optimism persists in the eyes of those like Araqs Sargsyan, “There is nothing that government can really change from the top, it can only come from the people themselves but the people only change what they want to change. So if the people don’t want to equality, they won’t have it but from the younger couples and families forming now, some discussions are taking place. This is a new thing but it exists and its increasing though it may be slow.”