The Forgotten Girls of Armenia

“The girls of our homeland must not be forgotten; they deserve to stand fierce as the Armenian mythological feminist warrior Nane…” Original illustration, used with permission, by Anahit of Erebuni

Դաժան կռւում դուք ընկաք
Ջահել սիրուն տղաներ
Յետոյ կռւից տուն եկաք
Որպէս արձաններ
Ախ ինչեր կասեք, դէ՜ խօսէք:

I haven’t had the emotional wherewithal to write anything about Armenia’s crisis since the 44-day war. My silence, like so many, has mimicked the granite of the laser cut images of our sons—մատղաշ տղաներ—who bravely and quite possibly, blindly, went to their graves like beds for a war whose results had been determined by the geopolitical promiscuity of corrupt forces. 

We watched mothers beat their chests upon the espresso-colored coffins of their sons. We watched them raise their fists to the incorporeal air of geopolitical apathy as many did not have even bones or flesh to mourn. We watched sisters, brothers, fathers, babies march as pilgrims to the cornices swelling from the grounds of our homeland. Like an audience watching an Aristotelian tragedy, we had our catharsis, we unraveled, and we went on with our daily lives either in the diaspora or in Armenia as a handful of individuals attempting to heal the lesions and lacerations of our infected homeland. We did this during a pandemic, without one ounce of care from the world.

You may be wondering why I have repeated the pronoun “we.” I often teach rhetorical devices of repetition to my Advanced Placement English Literature students. Sometimes, repetition is used as a rhetorical device for the purpose or sound alliteration, or diacope, or pathos, or even, like in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” it is used as palilogia in “The horror, the horror.” In this case, the repetition of “we” is obvious. Our unified repentance for watching this war and the deaths of our sons must be approached with the same accountability that a parent has for their child’s tantrum at Target, or their teenager’s uncontrolled behavior at a social event. We, the diaspora, are one of the parents to this fledgling country, and we have not parented the country with the same reflective, loving, and even austere vigilance that is needed. We allowed and fell for the velvet revolution, a revolution that didn’t even have the inventiveness to come up with its own name, copying the same title that was used in 1989 which led to the collapse of the communist regime of Czechoslovakia. We fell for identical memes of rock stars that were hanging out with the said leader, just as Frank Zappa did with Vaclav Havel in 1989, and people fell for it. We ate it up, made tee shirts, stickers, hats and signs with absolute hubris. We ignored the red flags. We fell for the white noise as so many organizations, oligarchs and the current leaders of Armenia and Artsakh raped our country of the resources it needed to overcome the adversity of our belligerent neighbors. “Hakhtelu enk” graced our pandemic masks. We did this while our enemies (internal and external) sharpened their knives.

All are punished. We are accountable.

So now the volta, the turn. 

Մայրեր կան ձեզ սպասող
Քոյր եղբայրներ՝ կարօտով
Մինչ դուք վշտից դառնացած
Համբոյր չտեսած
Ախ ինչեր կասէք, դէ՜ խօսէք:

I think these souls would urge us to have the girls of Armenia speak for them.

Years ago, as I was walking with my daughter in Yerevan, she asked me why there were so many bridal stores and hair salons. I had not really thought about it, but then I began noticing the same thing—from the mouth of babes. Even today, on social media, we are often inundated with videos of Armenian weddings, charming and beguiling brides, followed by baskets and the sounds of dhol-zourna. By no means am I demeaning the sanctity of Armenian weddings; it is a sacrament that is holy and brings hope and pride to our people, no doubt. 

However, for the majority of girls of Armenia, marriage is often the only ticket out of substandard living situations. Most girls in Armenia are faced with the inevitable aha moment that they need to be taken care of. After the war and now in the aftermath and trickle down effect of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Armenia and Artsakh will be faced with long-term economic impacts that will, like all wars, adversely affect the women and children of these regions. This is not to say that Armenia doesn’t have a strong history of powerful women. After all, the first direct parliamentary elections of 1919 were held in Armenia under universal suffrage; Armenian women had the right to vote before most western countries did. That said, in many ways, Armenia has regressed in its goals of educating the youth, and namely the girls of Armenia. Unless a student attends some of the better schools in Yerevan or private schools which cater to higher income brackets (Ayp School, Waldorf/Areknazan, etc.), girls in the villages and towns outside of Yerevan are often faced with the Sisyphean task of learning to advocate for themselves. Fortunately, some diasporan advocacy groups and organizations have sprouted to help mitigate the educational shortfalls through day camps, weekly online English lessons and mentorship programs, but the dire needs and educational deficiencies far surpass the resources that these programs can offer. This cannot be done only by diasporan Armenians; the Armenian government must be accountable for leaving children, especially girls, behind. 

When posed with the educational impact on children, we must also evaluate the patriarchal nuances in Armenia which begin for many in-utero. Sex selective abortion is a serious cause for concern. The widespread availability of affordable means to discover the sex of an early fetus is a modern instrument that so many of us benefit from; however, it has set off a pressure cooker of patriarchal norms. Current cultural biases have catalyzed a strong social norm of favoring sons in prenatal sex selection leading Armenia to have the third highest rate of of sex selective abortion in the world. Although this became illegal in Armenia in 2016, people find ways, and the patriarchal structure of the culture propels the saying that “boys are lucrative, girls are a burden.” The current trend of gender reveal parties shows young Armenian couples celebrating a blue confetti explosion, playing Armenchik’s “Balles” where a man celebrates his cerulean dressed boy singing “այս կեանքը բալէս քոնն ա”—the videos are rarely a girl. Perhaps he is right, his life is his—not the case for girls. Although some of the most studious, driven, creative brains of Armenia are women, the patriarchal makeup of the Armenian government is a testament to the country’s inability to break away from the underrepresentation within all facets of the powers that be. It is evident that the culture has many evolutionary scaffolds to overcome before making systemic changes in its cultural milieu. 

Furthermore, reports of domestic abuse against women are often shunned because of social and cultural shame and norms. Armenian society often preserves the “family unit” rather than protecting women against this cruel and inhumane crime. The Armenian government, for its part, allows women three kinds of protective orders. First, if a woman who has experienced domestic violence goes to the police for the first time, the perpetrator receives an official warning; the second offense receives a police intervention and the person who has committed the violence can be expelled from his home for 20 days. What is astounding is that a third order, reserved for the most serious situations, requires an appearance in court. Apparently, judges will ask the couple the question, “Can you get back together?” often cornering and guilting a survivor to return to the home of the perpetrator. 

The Women’s Resource Center in Armenia, which has long been raising awareness for victims of domestic violence, conducted a 2021 study titled “Impact of 2020 Artsakh War and the Post-War Situation on Women’s Basic Rights.” The group found that after the catastrophic losses sustained by families post-war, more pressure is on older girls to forgo their academics as they adapt to their new duties to care for junior family dependents, “early marriages, exposure to the risk of sexual violence and the need to earn living for the family.” During the war, many girls dropped out of the system; approximately 33,000 Artsakh students were deprived of their education. Although the government of Armenia implemented some programs to mitigate the educational deficits of students who were impacted by the war, more needs to be done. 

As for education, Armenia has indeed left children behind, especially girls from regions outside of Yerevan. It is a fact that countries which invest in girls’ secondary education reap the benefits of the investment. If Armenia begins to focus on improving the educational standards that it desperately needs, the lifetime earnings of girls will increase, child marriage rates will decline, and the standards of higher education will improve. I have found that although there are some nebulous “standards” and “benchmarks” for the whole of Armenia’s elementary and secondary schools, benchmarks and scaffolding for educational standards are unsystematic and disordered. Even some of the most underfunded public schools in the United States are held to accountability measures for funding through the use of benchmarks and summative assessments. For children in the villages of Armenia, educational standards are sub-par, and although there are efforts to upgrade and build schools in many of these regions, teachers with the pedagogical training required are few and far between. Textbooks (especially in village schools) are antiquated Soviet books lacking the kinds of 21st century pedagogical methods that promote innovation and higher order thinking. And except for a few diasporan organizations which have provided Chromebooks and laptops to students, the general population of students are unable to access some of the newer programs and materials that are provided at some of Yerevan’s schools. 

Thanks to many diasporan organizations and NGOs, there are indeed many noble attempts to improve the substandard educational levels of learning for Armenian children. As much as we are able to build beautiful schools in impoverished regions in Armenia, there aren’t the vast numbers of teachers needed to meet these needs. Armenia itself must make more of a concerted effort to improve teacher training programs while also developing the antiquated pedagogical styles that have been turned over from the communist regime. Critical thinking, writing and language instruction, mathematics, science and of course study skills must be implemented throughout. Armenia’s education ministry must make a more concerted effort to clarify and align nationwide standards throughout the country and must focus on pedagogical training and guidance to make the systemic changes that the country so desperately needs. 

We are often reassured by a strong push for STEAM education by the formidable TUMO program and some other fledgling programs. There are centers in and outside of Yerevan; TUMO also operates in remote areas. This is incredibly refreshing and hopeful, but again, one organization cannot shoulder the educational needs of a country. My own students in Armenia struggle to relearn the elements of basic mathematics, science and even English. When I asked friends who work with NGOs or universities, all of them basically told me, “Sevana, there’s really no standard or benchmark. This isn’t America.” 

A few of my students are gifted, brilliant young women who wish to change the direction of the country. Teaching them and speaking to them about their needs have unlocked a portal to a world that I knew, on an intellectual level, existed, yet when I had to teach them to make something as basic as flashcards, they were unfamiliar with the strategy. Once taught, the academic growth was profound. I also introduced apps like Duolingo, Quizlet and Khan Academy as four students hovered around one phone. Fortunately, through the generosity of some brave individuals who have dedicated their lives to helping, these children were provided laptops and mentorship. But it cannot be done with the handful of diasporans who are there, and as much as Zoom has become a fabulous tool, there’s only so much you can do from so far away.

Armenia must begin to invest in human capital and girls’ education. Especially during and post pandemic, learning deficiencies and missed school are major contributors to human capital deficits. Even in countries such as the United States, the learning crisis undermines sustainable poverty reduction. In her research, Ann Cotton, executive director of Camfed International (Campaign for Female Education) and co-chair of the UN Girls Education Initiative, found that “girls who complete primary and secondary education tend to marry later, have smaller families and earn significantly higher wages.”

Armenia has made a few efforts to push for gender equality (e.g. the 2013 “Law on Securing Equal Rights and Equal Opportunities for Women and Men). Schools in the more affluent communities of Yerevan often address project-based learning, higher standard mathematics, writing, arts and electives. However, for children in the villages of Armenia, sub-standard teaching methodologies have been mostly unresponsive to 21st century needs.  

I can keep going, but this is not a dissertation on the downfall of Armenia’s educational system. We must decide on Armenia’s trajectory, and the Armenian people must make an effort to change the status quo. This cannot be done by the handful of expats who have borne the burden of attempting to make change, and neither can it only be done by the diasporan organizations that have funneled investments and time on educational projects. Quite the contrary, I hope the youth of Armenia will change the country IF they are allowed to. They must be armed with the 21st century skills that a well-balanced education allows, and the government of Armenia must wake up and begin taking charge of training new, modern teachers to lead the droves of youth that yearn for the same inalienable rights that my own daughters thrive on. 

As I write this, I am reminded, again, of the flags waving on the hills of Yerablur. The wind waves those flags in circular spirits as mothers, brothers, fathers and daughters attempt to read its compass. The education of girls is crucial to the proliferation of social, economic, academic and cultural knowledge that will empower subsequent generations in Armenia and Artsakh. The girls of our homeland must not be forgotten. They deserve to stand fierce as the Armenian mythological feminist warrior Nane. But, instead of a spear and shield, our girls must be armed with the most formidable weapon, an education which will cultivate new seeds from the scarred and gutted earth of our homeland.

Քար էք դարձել, գրանիտ,
Բայց մենք չունենք քարէ սիրտ,
Դուք մեր սրտում մեր մէջ էք.
Մենք ձեզ երբէք չենք մոռանար,
Ու միշտ կը յիշենք:

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Sevana Panosian

Sevana Panosian is an award winning high school teacher in South San Francisco and master teacher through San Francisco State University's Secondary Education Program. Sevana is a native of San Francisco and an active member of the Armenian community.
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The Forgotten Girls of Armenia: https://t.co/TrExh6iLBf - 4 months ago
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3 Comments

  1. Great article Sevana! Do you by any chance collaborate with Larisa Hovannisian of Teach for Armenia? If not happy to make the introduction. Ultimately, it will take incredible people like you and your husband moving to Armenia to increase the ranks of the talented change agents to get to a critical mass needed to transform the educational system. Fortunately there are entities like TUMO, Armat Labs, COAF, etc. that can all cone together and set and execute the agenda. It’s not a matter of funding. It’s a matter of enough competent, driven human beings like you to commit for a 5-10 year period and work in Armenia!

  2. Hi Al, thank you for the post. Ultimately, it should not take moving to Armenia to do that. There are people in the diaspora quietly working and supporting the homeland – our friends at the ANCA and so many thousands of others. We cannot be helicopter parents to a country – it is not democratic, and it doesn’t achieve the ideal of a Democracy. It becomes a unilateral and reductive view to state that we should move to Armenia. That said, I do know the programs you mentioned and respect those who have moved there with their whole family to make positive and productive change. To go back and forth from the comfort of an American home is not always beneficial to the people of Armenia – although it has proven lucrative for many who have invested in Armenia. Thank you so much for what you do!

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