Young women’s peace activism: tearing apart stereotypes in Armenia and Azerbaijan

This month, May 2014, marks exactly twenty years since the formal ceasefire declaration in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet for Armenians and Azerbaijanis who were divided by the conflict, the past twenty years have been marked by political animosity, one-sided media coverage, regular ceasefire violations and needless soldier deaths. For most people, twenty years have passed without a single opportunity to meet someone from the other side, let alone make friends with them. The effects of this are particularly pronounced on the generation born during and after the war, who have no memories of peaceful coexistence and no idea what life is like on the other side of the border. Civil society organisations, including several women’s NGOs, have done their best to bridge this gap, offering young people a stake in a shared future, in spite of their divided present.

In recent weeks, the situation for these organisations has been marked by growing political tensions in the region. Events in Ukraine, particularly the fate of the Crimean peninsula, have highlighted the disparities between the official Armenian and Azerbaijani perspectives on the conflict, while awakening common fears of yet another Russian military intervention in the Caucasus. With Armenia set to join the Eurasian Customs Union, and Azerbaijan facing increasing isolation within Europe owing to its mounting human rights violations, it seems that the lines are becoming more firmly entrenched. Last month, when an Azerbaijani journalist was arrested accused of spying for Armenia, many feared that this marked the beginning of the end for organisations involved in cross-border activities.

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Armenia vs Sweden

When meeting an other person who’s sharing their memories and experiences I tend to spontaneously relate by drawing parallels to my own and the feelings I’ve experienced in a similar situation. In many ways a quite egocentric way to explore the world – my subjective experience of a certain situation is rarely the same as someone’s with a different background, life and idea world than mine. Still, it is in this relating my capability of empathy and a first understanding lies and to be able to deepen that I need to ask questions. In Armenia I am constantly drawing parallels in the same way to my own culture and life back home and then asking questions to get a better understanding.

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Women’s month in Armenia

March has been a hectic month at Women’s Resource Center in Armenia,
8 March is not the only date here devoted to women, also 7th of April has a similar content, so the entire month is seen as women’s month.

 

International women’s day is celebrated in the country since the 20′s after being introduced by Soviet as a result of the demonstrations in St Petersburg 1917. Women’s day, or Working Women’s day as it was originally called, was during the time an utterly political day with slogans such as “8th of March is the day of rebellion of working women against kitchen slavery” or “Say NO to the oppression and vacuity of household work!”.

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Presenting Armenian civil society 1325 report in New York

With the mission of presenting the first ever civil society monitoring report on UN Security Council Resolution 1325, the organisations Society Without Violence and Women’s Resource Centre were selected to represent Armenian civil society in New York last week.

Anna Arutshyan, Society Without Violence and Emmicki Roos, Operation 1325, outside the office of the Armenian mission to the UN. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Christina Hagner.

Anna Arutshyan, Society Without Violence and Emmicki Roos, Operation 1325, outside the office of the Armenian mission to the UN. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Christina Hagner.

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh started in 1988. In 1994, with the involvement of the Minsk Group, a ceasefire was achieved. Since then the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is defined as a frozen conflict.

Armenia being a very patriarchal society and experiencing several hardships at this time (the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of Armenia, blockade and an earthquake) totally neglected the issue of sexual and gender-based violence during the conflict and post-conflict period. But the war seriously affected women living in the southern part of Armenia, who were directly involved in the conflict.

In 2013 a monitoring group for UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (mainly consisting of women’s groups) was established in Armenia. Thanks to the involvement of the expert Emmicki Roos from Operation 1325, and with support of Kvinna till Kvinna, it was possible for this group to launch the first ever civil society monitoring report in Armenia. I would say, that quite a few challenges arose when trying to produce this report, since Armenia does not have a National Action Plan (NAP) under the UNSCR 1325, which made the collection of necessary data quite hard.

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Shared struggle

Lara Aharonian

Lara Aharonian

“Did you get an introduction to the situation in Armenia already, or do you want a short briefing?” Lara Aharonian, founder of the Women’s Resource Center Armenia (WRCA), is the one asking. We all nod eagerly, a briefing would be good.

One week’s visit to the South Caucasus has just started, and we are in the Armenian capital Yerevan. I travel together with a group of young feminists from Bosnia-Hercegovina and Lebanon, and staff from Kvinna till Kvinna. The aim of the trip is to give young women from conflict areas the opportunity to meet, to reflect upon their own activism and to exchange experiences in order to strengthen young women’s activism and peace work.

We sit tightly together in a small room decorated with colorful feminist posters and full of books and magazines. Lara Aharonian says that she’s not going to talk too much about the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Every word is politically sensitive and it easily becomes too unilateral, she says.
– If you want to know more, there is a lot to read, and I recommend that you listen to both sides, Lara Aharonian says, before she starts talking about the situation for women and women’s organizations in Armenia.

Her introduction lingers inside me. Lara Aharonian belongs to that part of the human race that usually is excluded from official peace negotiations, i.e. women, which is also the case here. I think about how the peace talks would have turned out if more humble, wise feminists like Lara Aharonian had been sitting around the negotiating table.

Meeting at WRCA, Yerevan, Armenia

Meeting at WRCA, Yerevan, Armenia

I am soon awakened from my thoughts. Lara Aharonian talks passionately about how WRCA is working to improve the situation of women in a country where domestic violence is seen as a private matter; where nine out of ten MP:s are men and the rise of nationalism makes it difficult and sometimes risky for the women’s movement and the LGBT movement to work. She shares stories of success with us, such as the “women’s march” where volunteers from WRCA wandered between villages in rural areas for five-six days to talk about violence against women. The feedback was positive and some women even joined the march along the way. Several women from these regions later on called the WRCA’s hotline for advice or to get more information.

Despite the fact that the small room is running out of air, the participants’ interest persists. Several of the Bosnian participants are full of enthusiasm and recognition – “they work exactly with the same things as we do, and they organize actions almost identical to ours!”, one of them exclaims. After the meeting business cards and email addresses are being exchanged, as well as plans to stay in touch.

Later during the trip, we will meet yet more feminists, in Azerbaijan for instance. Since the border between the two countries is closed, the ones of us going to Azerbaijan have to travel through Georgia. We notice that the conflict is present, albeit on a low level of intensity, and that it matters significantly which words we choose. But what we meet during this trip more than anything, are women who tirelessly continue to fight for a peaceful society, where peace not only means absence of armed conflict, but also that the war against women has stopped. This struggle transcends all nation borders, and it is a special feeling to be part of a moment permeated with that particular insight.

Karin Råghall