Long way to go for Armenia's women


Caucasus Reporting Service  – Women's Rights in the South Caucasus

By Gayane Abrahamyan in Yerevan
(CRS No. 537, 26-Mar-10) – IWPR Report

Slow progress towards equality in public life.

Although three-quarters of women in Armenia have been through higher education, there have only been four female ministers since the country became independent in 1991.

Only one woman – in Shirak in 2007 – has ever been named as a regional governor.

The figures reveal the extent of the gender divide in the former Soviet country where,  despite formal equality of the sexes in law, women still battle to achieve the goals open to men.

The highest post a woman has ever held in the country is that of deputy speaker. Arevik Petrosyan, a member of parliament from Prosperous Armenia, part of the ruling coalition, was elected to the post in September 2007.

She is one of only 12 women in the 131-member assembly. This may look like a depressing proportion for equality activists, but it is a step forward of sorts, since only seven women held seats in the previous parliament.

A similar rise – albeit from a low base – is visible at lower levels of the state. In 2005, only 16 of the country's 866 village administrations were headed by women. Now there are 23.

But activists still point out that women are absent from all the top positions in the country.

“It's true that they are now more tolerant towards women, but the top positions are still inaccessible,” said Jemma Hasratyan, founder and president of the Association of Women with a Higher Education.

She has several explanations for why women remain excluded from the elite.

According to a sociological survey conducted in 2006, more than 30 per cent of people think women miss out on top positions because of male chauvinism in society. Another 15 per cent blame corruption for their absence.

Curiously, however, the survey also showed that 60 per cent of men and 83 per cent of women said they supported greater female participation in politics, which was a significant increase on five years previously.

Lilit Zaqaryan, vice-president of the Association of Women, said the roots of discrimination went so deep that it was hard to isolate them.

“The problem lies in the depths of the subconscious. In a survey, many people will support having a woman in the cabinet, then during an election they will automatically choose a man. This is because at the deepest level of the subconscious, only a man is thought of as a politician or leader,” she said.

This was confirmed by Alvard Petrosyan, a woman who has been elected to parliament three times. “Women trust men mainly out of habit, which to a greater or lesser extent affects everyone,” she said.

Another explanation put forward for why women miss out on top positions is that they spend time with their families, thus harming their careers. This is contradicted, however, by two mothers elected to parliament – one from the ruling party, one from the opposition.

“Of course it was not easy, but you need resolve and hard work to get ahead,” said Hermine Naghdalyan, who has five children and represents the president's party in parliament. Her large family has not stopped her being elected four times.

The 50-year-old first entered parliament in 1995, seeing off challenges from 19 rivals in the election.

“It was hard. As a rule, the political game is aggressive, and normally it's a fight without rules. But a woman can dictate her own rules, which are more humane and more successful,” said Naghdalyan, adding that her family's support had been very important for her to overthrow traditional stereotypes.

Sociologists say women are also excluded from the political arena because positions are gained through back-room deals – something women are often excluded from.

Armine Ghazaryan, an expert from the Armenian Centre for Strategic and National Investigations who has looked into the reasons for the gender divide, said this “unique culture for resolving matters” blocks women from advancing.

“Various circles, spheres and groups are an inalienable part of a state like ours – corruption, powerful shadowy figures, the police, the organised criminals, the oligarchs. It is specifically this way of solving problems that rules out the possibility of women taking part,” he said.

Anait Bakhshyan of the opposition Heritage party picked up on these allegations.

“Men know well that in most cases, women are not going to take part in dirty deals and will not take part in business outside the law,” he said.

Aharon Adibekyan, a researcher from the think tank Sociometr, said such explanations were too complicated, and that the real reason for women's exclusion from public life was the fact that traditional roles persisted in most families. Women cook and raise families while men go out to earn money.

“You cannot speak of serious progress when in 67 per cent of cases there is psychological pressure in families, which normally means that women are not able to work,” he said.

The Heritage party – which counts three women among its seven members of parliament, compared with just two among the 64 deputies of the ruling Republican Party – is determined to change this.

“Women are the majority of the population, and they must be given a chance to be heard,” said Raffi Hovhannisyan, leader of the Heritage party. “Without this, democracy is impossible.”

Gayane Abrahamyan is a correspondent for ArmeniaNow.

SourceL IWPR website, 26 March 2010