Armenia: Strengthening rural communities through empowering women

Svetlana A. Aslanyan

Armenian legislation supports women’s rights, but the laws often clashes with daily habits. The non governmental Center for the Development of Civil Society (CDCS), presided by Svetlana A. Aslanyan, launched some years ago the program “Empowering young women in rural areas”, that included seminars on human rights, gender equality, leadership as well as training courses and publication of materials and books. The aim was to increase the role of rural women in the decision making processes at both local and national levels. The seminars have helped young women to discover their abilities and to be active participants in civil society.

The program was implemented in 12 small towns of four out of ten regions of Armenia (Ararat, Armavir, Aragatsotn and Kotayq). The primary beneficiaries of the project were 120 middle age rural women that were trained to implement this project. Secondary beneficiaries of the project were be the twelve rural communities themselves and finally the main beneficiaries of the project is the Armenian society as the whole.

The aim of the project was to increase the role of rural women in the decision making processes at both local and national levels. The 120 women involved in the project participated in the trainings. According to Aslanyan, the aim was to revitalize the tradition when the community had a big role in state and also to enhance the women’s awareness and role in those communities’ daily life and their civil society organizations.

The project developed leadership abilities in the concerned women, with the objective of involving them in community problem resolution by cooperative means.

Professor Aslanyan gives importance to the cooperation with those departments of municipalities that protect rights of families, wives and children. Gender issues and basics on leadership and cooperative practices were discussed during the training sessions. The seminars were enriched with meetings between women of different regions

Aslanyan explained in a paper that the experience was useful “to elaborate relationships between feminist theory and practice”.

“The project clearly responded to a critical need of our society: to increase number of women active in public sphere and to reinforce human resources among Armenian women. It had a concrete plan of activities aiming at and leading to positive changes in the democratic environment and citizens’/rural women’s civic involvement in Armenia. Furthermore, action was directly relevant to priority of promoting the rights of rural women as vulnerable groups, including their right to equal treatment, notably through awareness-raising and education-orientated projects. It can be treated as a good example of cooperation between civil society and local governments,” Aslanyan wrote in her paper.

“From my perspective, to be more effective, feminists must closely collaborate with women’s advocates and activists of women’s NGOs. The best relationship between feminist theory and practice is the case when theoretical findings serve the base for designing practical activities directed to establishment of real gender equality. I am a researcher and chairwoman of women’s NGO, which allows me to put into practice my theoretical findings,” she added in the study.

Aslanyan, who has over 20 years of research and teaching experience and received her PhD in linguistics from the Institute of Linguistics of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia, is devoted since 1996 to research the role of women in Armenia. One of her more recent investigations was focused on rural women in transition from the soviet regime to the market economy.

“After the downfall of the Soviet system and the declaration of independence of Armenia, the social, educational and economic situation in Armenia has sharply changed due the change of the political system and moral values. The difficulties that Armenians have to face during transition mostly impact women due to Armenian societal roles and pressures. Women are the more vulnerable part of the population, because they are being forced out from social and political life,” she remarked in her paper.

“The slogan, ‘Women must be dismissed first’ has become universal for all CIS countries. Societal norms dictate that the man must be the ‘bread-winner’ of the family, which results in women having more of a domestic role. Women are deprived of equal opportunities to enjoy their rights. They are excluded from decision-making levels. Women's involvement in both the central government and local governments is minimal. Women are inadequately represented in the National Assembly,” Aslanyan noted.

“The situation is worse in rural areas: women unemployment and feminization of poverty is increasing. Rural women are totally excluded from the process of enhancement of the civil society and of the democratic reforms. Much of the field labor in Armenia goes unrecognized at official levels because it is unpaid or is culturally unimportant compared to male. That is not to say that rural women do not have a history of participation in the life of their community,” the expert wrote.

“Under the Soviet rule, rural women were required to participate in the political, social and economic life of the village through a definite and defined quota system. In fact, one could say that it was the woman who was the backbone of the collective farming system (kolkhozes). Now that the quota system has been abolished, women find that they are no longer invited to participate in any organized ways in their villages. The lack of social organizations has led to the isolation, and the eventual social regression in the life of the rural woman. The combined effect of all this obstacles translates directly into low participation of rural women in local and national public policy decision-making processes,” she warned.

“Strategies to enhance rural women’s role in community social life are critical today. Efforts to advance rural women are of particular importance. For this to happen rural women must have the necessary capacity that require specific knowledge and skills,” Aslanyan described.

The project “Empowering young women in rural areas” was, according to the president of the CDCS, “comprehensive and aimed at addressing key rural women's issues. Basically it can be defined as an across-the-board project since it incorporates innovative interventions.”

The plan, in her own wards, addressed the rural women’s participation issues at three levels:

■ On the individual level through an intensive training and provision of resources for rural women project raised women’s ability to participate in community life.

■ On the grassroots level through strengthening a women’s network in the small communities; project expand the network and promote activities.

■ On the community level the project ensured that rural women's ability to participate in various civil activities in the communities including participation in local elections, monitoring of the community processes, etc was met.

To accomplish those above goals, the following activities were issued:

■ Initial visits to the communities

The Project director visited all project sites and with relevant Coalition Members made necessary arrangements with local authorities and women activists groups regarding the field workshop, selection of trainees for the rural women training program and other important logistics. Local authorities were involved in the project from the early stages.


■ Field workshops

Workshops were conducted with aim to inform local communities about the project and select five local community activists who will become trainees for Training for Trainers. Thirty rural activists from local community in each of the four project sites were invited to participate in the field workshop which will take place in the City Center of each of four Marzes.

Each of the workshops was two days in duration and involve up to 30 participants to provide an opportunity for all interested individuals to participate in the project. The facility for the training was provided by the local communities and will be their contribution to the project.

■ Identification of trainers

At the end of two-day field workshop groups of 5 trainers representing each of small urban communities of each four Marz was identified to become trainees for Training of Trainers session to expand knowledge and leadership skills across the project target communities. The selection process was done considering the composition of the groups, the objectives of the training as well as the role and position of the participants and their learning needs.

■ Design of training program and preparation of materials

It is foreseen to design program for training. The project team prepared and published training materials on the various subjects. Training materials, that outlines the major issues taught during the course, was handed out one week prior to the training course. They served as support material for trainees and helped trainees to prepare and acquire some basic knowledge in advance.

■ “Cross-fertilization” sessions/ Strengthening women activists’ network

Networking was one of the priorities of the activities of the project. The network consisting of women activists from small communities of the four selected Marzes of Armenia was supported and strengthened throughout the project. Groups of women activists from different communities shared information about their activities. They communicated among themselves and assist in each other’s growth. The "cross-fertilization” sessions created a unique opportunity for exchange information and knowledge and supported for the trainers in the future. The facility for the training will be provided by the local communities and was their contribution to the project.

■ Training of trainers sessions

Training of Trainers sessions was focus on new methodology of adult learning and experiential and interactive approach stressing critical thinking skills. Attention was paid also to some important practical issues. Trainers was taught how to maintain a supportive climate, how to present information in a highly structured and organized way, how to use a variety of modes of presentation to maintain interest, how to provide opportunity for practice or application. Trainers also were taught how the non-verbal communication provides useful feedback to trainers and how it should be used. In a training session four different aspects of the learning process was distinguished: knowledge, skills, attitudes and values.

The training program was based on the civic education that will include but not limited to:

● citizen’s rights and responsibilities,

● voting and active citizenry,

● role of political parties in democratic societies,

● citizen participation in the democratic system,

● how to get involved and to make your views known,

● role of the person in the community,

● democracy concept and freedoms,

● human rights, women rights,

“The project significantly improved the situation of rural women living in small communities, an improvement that will lead to a general improvement of women’s conditions of life in Armenia as a whole and changes of their roles in their respective communities,” concluded Aslanyan. “It developed the potential and the human resources of women in order to promote their participation and activism.”

“The rural women were equipped with new knowledge, skills and attitudes to become active persons and citizens, and, more importantly, they begin to prepare to be ready to participate in local elections. Particularly, the project challenged women and assists them in starting non-governmental organizations that would address their specific needs,” she added.

“Second, the project also strengthened the women activists’ network through the involvement of its members in the project activities and exchange between women in different communities and inter-community network activities. It also will facilitate communication and links between women’s community groups,” the expert noted.

“Third, the project had significant impact on these local communities, which got more active and skilled women, who will be able to be actively involved in the community life. The improvement of situation of women improved the situation of their families and at large contributes general and harmonic development of the communities,”, Aslanyan wrote.

According to the expert, the project “had several overarching results. It significantly promoted building of civil society in Armenia and increased the role of women. Rural women were equipped with new knowledge, skills and attitudes to become active persons and citizens and more important they are ready to participate in local elections. The improvement of situation of rural women and changing their role in their respective communities will improve the situation of their families and at large contribute general strengthening of the communities and develop grassroots.”

“The project also strengthened the women activists’ network through the involvement of its members in the project activities and exchange between women in different communities. The new model of empowerment of women that was created could be easily replicated and/or extended to governments’ institutions programs; it can be easily replicated in other countries. International and intergovernmental organizations dealing with women/gender can use methodology and approaches of the project in their various activities both as donor and as project implementer agencies,” the expert explained.

Center for the Development of Civil Society: