Last month Zimbabwe’s Co-minister for Reconciliation, Healing, and Integration, Sekai Holland, received the Sydney Peace Prize for a lifetime of campaigning for human rights and democracy and challenging violence.
Throughout her life, Holland has been at the forefront of many human rights issues, including the rights of Aboriginals in Australia, opposition to the apartheid system in South Africa, and perhaps most of all democracy and women’s rights in her native Zimbabwe. She has survived attempts on her life and has been tortured for her opposition to President Robert Mugabe’s oppressive policies, but she has been impossible to silence.
Elegant, composed, and with a presence that demands respect even if you’re only seeing her on television, Holland is the type of politician that makes you wish there were more like her in the world. And then, inevitably, you wonder: What if there were more politicians like that in Armenia? Women politicians, fighting for women’s rights, for broader human rights, for democracy.
Gender inequality is a serious issue affecting Armenia’s women today. The prevalence of traditional views and expectations of women as obedient subjects of their fathers, brothers, and husbands have not only hampered their empowerment, but also continue to allow for widespread, gender-based discrimination and even violence.
Gender-based domestic violence in Armenia has been an area of particular concern. In 2008, Amnesty International reported that national surveys taken in Armenia suggest more than a quarter of the country’s women have been subjected to physical violence at the hands of their husbands or other family members. One such nationwide study, conducted by the American University of Armenia’s (AUA) Turpanjian Center for Policy Analysis (TCPA) in 2007 found that nearly 66 percent of respondents experienced psychological abuse; 27 percent experienced acts of moderate physical abuse; and 12 percent experienced acts of severe physical abuse.
In 2010, the brutal murder of Zaruhi Petrosyan horrified many in Armenia and the diaspora, bringing to the surface the ugly truth of domestic violence in the country in a more powerful way than ever before. Yet, domestic violence is not the only form of gender-based violence existing in the country.
In more recent years, the selective abortion of female fetuses emerged as another dangerous practice discriminating against women, and one that carries long-term demographic consequences for a country already facing low fertility rates and high emigration. Armenia’s abnormally high rates of 114 male births to 100 female births (compared to the natural rate of 105 males for every 100 females) led the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to condemn the practice of selective abortions in the country in an October 2011 resolution. Analysts have explained this phenomenon in Armenia with reference to attitudes towards the role of women and the paramount importance given to bearing a son who can carry on the family’s name.
Traditional attitudes towards the role of women in Armenia have also proved a significant obstacle to their participation in the public sphere. The 2012 World Economic Forum “Global Gender Gap Report” ranked Armenia 92nd out of 135 countries with respect to gender gaps measured in four areas. Ironically, Armenia ranked 25th in educational attainment, but 76th in economic participation and opportunity, and 114th in political empowerment (all three rankings among 135 countries). These results speak volumes about the economic and political participation of Armenian women despite the relatively high level of education equality in the country.
Perhaps nowhere is the limited role of women in public life in Armenia more evident than in the area of politics. Only 2 of Armenia’s 18 ministries are currently headed by women (the ministries of diaspora and culture) and a mere 14 of the 131 members of the National Assembly are women. This, despite a 2007 amendment to the Armenian Electoral Code stipulating that women should account for 15 percent of a party or bloc’s list of candidates in the proportional component of the vote and that a woman should occupy every 10th place on the list.
Unfortunately, Armenian women’s attitudes towards their own rights can be a serious part of the problem. Sixty-one percent of respondents in AUA’s TCPA survey said that “a good wife always obeys her husband even if she disagrees,’’ and that it is important for a man to show his wife who is boss. Moreover, NGOs and activists working in the field of human rights in Armenia confirm that it is not uncommon for victims of domestic violence to believe they deserve to be subjected to such abuse or to stay silent.
The government of Armenia has taken some steps to address gender issues in the country. An example is the amendment to the electoral law to ensure higher participation of women in the National Assembly. It has put in place a Strategic Action Plan to Combat Gender-Based Violence in Armenia. Police training programs have been implemented to educate police on their responsibilities in responding to domestic violence. Work has also been underway for some time, particularly by civil society in Armenia, to introduce legislation criminalizing domestic violence.
More concerted effort is needed on the part of the government, however, to ensure more equal rights for Armenia’s women in practice. Women in Armenia must also learn to be advocates for their own rights rather than play the role of submissive, second-class citizens. Armenia’s women politicians are few but they are uniquely positioned to lead the fight for gender equality. As women occupying public office, they have first-hand experience in the challenges and pressures women face in their pursuit of a more active participation in public life. As politicians, they have unrivalled access to other decision-makers in the country and the platforms from which they can advocate better rights for and more positive attitudes towards women in Armenia.
In essence, respect for women’s rights is part and parcel of respect for broader human rights. Promoting a society where women are considered as equal and are provided with equal opportunities for economic and political participation is an important factor in promoting democracy in the country. Armenia’s women have the potential. They are well educated, they are resilient. They deserve the opportunity to leave their mark on the country’s and nation’s future and they must fight for it.