ARMENIA: “Gender inequality is unjust, unintelligent and expensive.” ???


“Gender inequality is unjust, unintelligent and expensive.”

Terry Davis, former Secretary-General of the Council of Europe While the Soviet Union spearheaded, at least ideologically, what can be seen as a campaign-turned-policy of ‘State feminism’, proclaimed equality between the sexes and time and again took the lead in expanding social, economic and cultural rights of and opportunities for women, the overall undemocratic nature of the polity, economic system and the regime, that sought to impose a set of rigid ideological norms, required unswerving allegiance and tolerated no dissent or critical thinking. It, thus, effectively ruled out any true liberalization of social relations, respect for social freedoms and, not infrequently, any opportunity for an informed and judicious choice for men and, especially, for women. Egalitarian phraseology as well as the much touted socialist ideals of gender equality and gender equity notwithstanding, the paternalistic State left core patriarchal structures and patterns of the past intact. Ultimately it was men in that social organization who were in positions of power, decision-making, and control over access to resources and “wealth”.

The State promoted only heavily controlled political, economic and, to some extent, social activism of women (which resulted in a dual or at times even tripleburden of work, family and civic responsibilities), while at the same time being in no haste to make them truly equal and free, especially in families and households.
It was in the private sphere in the USSR that men’s social, economic and even physical power over women was most institutionalized.

A World Bank study rightly concludes that “the veneer of gender equality was thin” and emphasizes that “… society remained predominantly patriarchal and gender relations within the household continued to reflect a strong ‘male breadwinner’ model,” while “women continued to be seen predominantly as mothers and wives primarily responsible for nurturing within the family.”

Unequal power relations became more visible and came to the fore with the demise of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the absence of a viable civil society significantly undermined the transition and democratization processes and was a source of huge distortions, including the resurgence of patriarchal stereotypes, mentality and practices. Nevertheless, it took almost a decade for a gender discourse in Armenia to focus on power asymmetry between the sexes and to conclude that gender inequality boils down to unequal access to
and distribution of power for women and men. Those developments were further exacerbated in Armenia (as well as in other South Caucasus and Central Asian countries in contrast to Western CIS countries) by unfolding de-modernization processes in social and public life and by not infrequent regression to precapitalist (not to say feudal) arrangements, practices and mentality.

These processes in the post-socialist countries in the transition period led to further entrenchment of patriarchal patterns and to growing gender asymmetry in economy as well as in politics and in public life.4 American political scientist Mary Hawkesworth contends that the change in political system from authoritarian
to democratic, by itself does not guarantee gender equality and that in many cases a transitional period brings many more inequalities.

What is more, as some sociologists indicate, in the post-Soviet region “liberation from ‘the Red’” was quite paradoxically also liberation from the ideals of emancipation.”

Summing up their findings on the gender equality situation in the postsocialist transition Polish authors Agnieszka Rochon and Agnieszka Grzybek conclude: “In spite of the twenty years of democratic transformation, women did not manage to reduce their distance from men enough for their voice to be clearly heard in public debate.”

Armenian society was no exception, with the said distance having grown even more. Neither was it immune to resurgent patriarchal stereotypes about male and female roles and conservative societal expectations vis-à-vis women and men. Maria Titizian, a Vice-President of Socialist International, points out that “with independence, women were relegated back to their traditional, culturally defined roles, which have marginalized their involvement in all aspects of governance and conflict resolution.”

The recent study conducted by American gender expert Elizabeth Duban concludes: “Significant differences persist in the roles and status of women and men in Armenia, influenced by patriarchal culture and traditions. Cultural norms and stereotypes are quite rigid and account for a number of the obstacles facing women, such as societal notions that women are generally not decision-makers in the public sphere and women’s own lack of confidence and perceptions of their dependence on men.”

That “organic” process of growing gender inequality was unfolding almost unchecked until the mid-1990s. It was in the aftermath of the World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna in 1993, the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo in 1994 and, especially, the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995 that gender issues were brought to the attention of the public at large and that their existence in Armenia posited, if not universally acknowledged. Armenia was opening up to the world at that time and was presumably making conscious efforts to “catch up” in its civilizational development, i.e. to shed the “oppressive” Soviet legacy and get on a fast track to a modern liberal democracy based on a free-market economy and European values.

Why would the gender theme become prominent for the first time in a public discourse in Armenia at that particular historical juncture?

While the abovementioned conferences provided important background, ideas, strategies, action plans and other tools and resources and while, thus, they were indispensible for structuring the debate and framing the issues and policies and for chartering the course of action, the single most potent incentive and an impact factor that predetermined to a large extent a vector of future developments was what may be called a “European integration pull factor.”

It should be borne in mind that at that time for post-Soviet countries like Armenia that ostensibly embarked on the road to liberalization and democratization it was crucially important to demonstrate to the world that as
newly independent nations they took those processes seriously and they wished to abide by democratic principles and “European” values, including, inter alia, respect for human rights, elimination of discrimination and provision of equal opportunity. The main reason behind those intentions and plans was to become accepted into the community of European nations through gradually obtaining membership in regional organizations such as OSCE, Council of Europe and, eventually, the European Union.

Besides, the international aid, which was provided to most of these countries (and Armenia was no exception) with a view to helping them to get on a sustainable development track, presupposed compliance with certain norms and principles. While no strings were attached expressly, this aid gradually came to entail certain conditionalities, albeit initially for the most part implicit. Serious reforms were underway and domestic legislation had to be harmonized with international legislation. While not perceived locally as necessarily a top priority at that time, gender issues were identified among the problems that needed to be addressed in a comprehensive and meaningful way.

The outcome documents of the above-mentioned conferences provided a conceptual framework and policy guidelines for the powers-that-be as well as for fledgling civil society organizations and for the research community in Armenia.

In addition, they introduced novel ideas, concepts, terminology and theories gender equality and offered a totally new perspective on gender issues. Thus, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action not only spoke about the “human rights of women” that are “an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights” but also stated unequivocally that the “full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life, at the national, regional and international levels, and the eradication of all forms of discrimination on grounds of sex are priority objectives of the international community.”

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The ICPD Programme of Action was the next milestone. Not only did it bring a “revolutionary” idea of recognition of and respect for women’s reproductive rights to the forefront but it also focused on the crucial importance and role of the empowerment of women. As one of the 179 countries that adopted the ICPD Programme of Action, Armenia subscribed to the idea that the “empowerment and autonomy of women and the improvement of their political, social, economic and health status is a highly important end in itself [and] … is essential for the achievement of sustainable development.”

The Beijing Platform for Action laid out the idea of gender equality in the human rights framework and stressed the significance of and provided an agenda for women’s empowerment. More importantly, it identified 12 areas of concern and detailed the strategic objectives to be achieved and the actions to be taken.

Gender equality was clearly established by those documents as a democratic principle; it was also politically, economically and socially useful. The idea, however, met with much resistance and opposition by some segments of Armenian society almost from the start.

The reasons for opposition included but were not limited to:
– Injection of too many ideas, including seemingly “radical” ones, within a short period of time; naturally enough, quite some time was needed for society at large to come to grips with, to digest and subsequently to accept and internalize some of those ideas.
– The limited absorption capacity of society vis-à-vis progressive ideas (which can be accounted for by uncritical acceptance and toleration of patriarchal stereotypes and practices) slowed down the acceptance process for ideas of gender equality.
– Little initial enthusiasm and surprisingly little opposition, which can be accounted for by indifference as well as by the lack of adequate understanding, knowledge and realization of consequences, were soon replaced by divergent positions, which came to be articulated and held quite forcefully. To too many people the gender discourse initially looked like a traditional Soviet approach merely couched in different phraseology. Even those who were not particularly enchanted with these ideas did not take them seriously, probably relying on bureaucratic ability to merely pay lip service without actually making real changes. When the realization came that gender equality is not merely a convenient slogan which can be expediently neglected in real life, that effective measures have to be taken and that major social changes have to be effected, the opposition to women’s empowerment grew.
– Difference in perceptions and interpretations of “equality,” with the majority not being against “equality” per se. To complicate things further, not infrequently, the existence of gender inequality is recognized but is not seen as a problem.
– Social resistance, which was pointed out by gender experts Marina Blagojevic and Jina Sargizova: “… There is still widely shared “social resistance” to gender equality which originates, not so much from traditional values (since communist memory of gender equality still seems to be strong, at least in the stratum of women professionals), as much as from the new unfavorable labor market conditions which “push back” women into the family roles.”

Despite the opposition, the idea of gender equality was officially embraced, however reluctantly, and it gradually gained prominence. Some steps were taken, albeit for the most part superficial, and policies were formulated, although those were far from consistent in implementation:

The Department of Family, Women’s and Children’s Issues was created within the Ministry of Labor and Social Issues in 1997. The Department was tasked, inter alia, with drawing up the first National Action Plan for the Improvement of Women’s Status and Enhancement of their Role in Society for 1998-2014. However, the Plan remained on paper. It was not implemented and no official review was ever conducted. Almost all the work in the gender issues field was done at the time by the few existing women’s NGOs. The latter focused
on awareness-raising, advocacy, research and lobbying. First conferences were held and surveys conducted.

Over 20 women’s NGOs were established or gained prominence during that period. Most of them discovered or clarified their principal mandate and mission. Another important feature of this “breakthrough” in the recognition of gender issues was recognition of the political and economic dimensions of women’s issues, whereas earlier the focus had been almost exclusively on families’ socioeconomic situation, women’s reproductive health, maternal and children’s health, provision of social services to women, etc.

Nevertheless, it was at the turn of the century/millennium that push came to shove, marking the beginning of a new period in Armenia in public perceptions and attitudes, in policymaking and in research and activities concerning gender issues. The marked change can be accounted for primarily by four major external factors, viz. the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the Beijing review process, reporting under international human rights instruments and the Council of Europe (CoE) membership.

(i) MDGs, including their review process: The Millennium Declaration (that the MDGs are derived from) qualifies “gender equality and the empowerment of women as effective ways to combat poverty, hunger and disease and to stimulate development that is truly sustainable.”16 The UN subsequently encouraged all countries to take ownership of the MDGs, to make national development plans gender-sensitive and to “nationalize” MDGs, i.e. to make them relevant to their local context. Armenia produced its first MDG National Progress Report in 2005, developing a national MDG framework, i.e. setting country-specific localized targets and monitoring indicators that reflected the priorities and needs identified by the Armenian government and suggested ways to achieve the MDGs in line with Armenia’s own development needs.

The Report states that “in Armenia’s context, MDG nationalization entails setting goals that are more ambitious than those pledged by the Millennium Declaration”.

This is particularly true about … gender equality (MDG 3), which emphasizes “gender equality in terms of women’s participation in politics and decision-making.”

(ii) The Beijing review process (especially Beijing+5 and Beijing+10) made a strong impact on domestic policymaking and advocacy, especially through the outcome document adopted by the twenty-third UN General Assembly special session “Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the Twentyfirst Century” and resolutions and agreed conclusions adopted by the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). The process was particularly important because Armenia chaired the CSW in 2009-2011.

(iii) Reporting under international human rights instruments is also very important for national policymaking and policy implementation. In this context, the most relevant international legal instrument is the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Armenia has been making strenuous efforts to demonstrate its adherence to international human rights treaties, including the CEDAW. The periodic reporting process, which entails not only preparation and submission of a report to the CEDAW Committee but also an obligation to act on the Concluding Observations provided by the Committee, has proved to be a significant factor in making the government pay more attention to gender issues, take appropriate measures, including policy formulation and implementation, action plans, drafting legislation, etc. This process has thus proved to be a catalyst for change. The Concluding Observations provided by the CEDAW Committee were a powerful incentive for the Armenian Government to pay closer attention to outstanding problems and to look for effective ways to address them.


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