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The historically Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh was placed under Azerbaijani rule by Stalin in the 1920s as part of his ‘divide and rule’ strategy. The resulting tension erupted into violent conflict around the time of the dissolution of the USSR, including the attempted ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population of the region. This history has presented many challenges to the role of women in Nagorno-Karabakh. Recent conflicts (as with all conflicts around the world) have disproportionately affected women, particularly in terms of social participation and influence within higher political society. Yet, women’s participation is central to the process of peace building and state building. It is imperative that women are not overlooked in future peace talks if a functioning, peaceful state of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh is to be formed.
Nagorno-Karabakh is now home to 140,000 Armenians who, despite war and isolation, have formed a small but functioning independent state. The population identifies as Karabakh Armenians, rebuilding cities such as Stepanakert, the capital, with investment from the Armenian diaspora and the Armenian Government. Yet Nagorno-Karabakh has little influence over its future as it is recognised by neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan and has no seat at the negotiating table. Only the Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan participate in peace negotiations, though Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh are trying to foster greater involvement for the latter in these negotiations.
In acknowledgment of the complexity of the peace process, it is easy to overlook how the conflicts have disproportionately affected women, reflected by the low participation rates of women in political society. For example, the highest legislative body in Nagorno-Karabakh is the National Assembly, consisting of 33 members, 4 of which are women (2012). Unfortunately, it would appear that traditional gender roles have prospered alongside the lack of gender awareness resulting in the omission of women from peace talks with an almost entirely male-dominated peace negotiation.
During the 1990s, the political participation of women was high. According to the Swedish foundation, Kvinna till Kvinna, who supports women’s empowerment and participation, ‘many Armenian women look back on this time as ‘The Golden Years’ for women’s involvement’. The Global Network of Women’s Peacebuilders reported that: ‘The representation of women in current peace negotiation is limited to the level of technical experts and observers’. Challenges remain in empowering women to participate in government or parliament and providing encouragement for them to do so. However, women have begun to use NGOs as a way in which to express their concerns. Many women are increasingly using the non-governmental sphere as an alternative space in which to successfully voice their opinions due to the pressures of a masculine political environment.
Not only is gender disparity apparent at higher political levels, but to a certain extent is seen throughout Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenian economy has suffered greatly due to the closed borders of Turkey and Azerbaijan meaning the majority of Armenian men seek work abroad and women can be left at home, working several jobs to support their families. Intense conflict and economic isolation can leave women particularly vulnerable. However advances in female education in recent years have proved incredibly successful. In the age bracket of 26-49, the percentage of women completing a post-graduate or higher qualification is now higher than men, demonstrating the success of Nagorno-Karabakh in recognising and improving gender imbalances in education.
Gender based violence against women is a serious problem, yet largely unacknowledged. However, in recent years, the work of women’s organizations with vulnerable women has been widespread and successful. They focus on strengthening local communities by providing employment training and education about their rights. Examples of such organisations include the Armenian Women’s Welfare Association who work to provide community care, specifically to the elderly in Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Transcaucasus Women Dialogue who work across the three conflicting states, encouraging dialogue between women and providing training of conflict resolution techniques.
Considering the stalemate complexities, the two presidents involved in peace negotiations are unlikely to prioritise women’s participation. International actors, such as the Minsk group, must lead by example encouraging a space for women throughout the peace talks and consulting women’s organisations to bridge gaps between formal and informal actors. It is clear that steps taken to address this issue have been extremely successful, such as the excellent women’s education and if continuing on the right track, Nagorno-Karabakh will be moving towards a very positive future. The international community has been criticized as ‘international donors generously supported specific peace building activities, but limited funds to tackle underlying causes of women’s exclusion’. It is only by successfully continuing to address gender imbalances that Nagorno-Karabakh can work towards forming a truly democratic society and aim to become an autonomous, functioning, peaceful republic.