The female faces of the blockade of Artsakh

A few days before the forced deportation of Artsakh residents

“Eh, tsavd tanem (I’ll bear your pain). There’s so much to think about. You keep asking how women are coping with the blockade. Our children are sleeping hungry. What can we say about us?” said Gayane with a sigh during our conversation a few days before the forced displacement of nearly all of the Armenian residents of Artsakh.

I couldn’t understand half of her words, as the call continued to be marred by poor connectivity. I was trying to piece together the fragments of her words, a mosaic of sounds and sighs that narrated a story of endurance. 

I was planning to prepare an article about the problems with sexual and reproductive health facing the women of Artsakh under blockade. I wanted to create a platform, a safe space, where women would finally be able to talk about themselves and their personal problems and difficulties.

Yet do women have personal space during wars or blockades? Even during peacetime, Armenian women have a huge burden of responsibilities on their shoulders: having children, “multiplying” the nation and raising a patriotic generation. In times of strife, these responsibilities burgeon.

Gayane’s niece gave birth to her second child a few weeks before our conversation. Her first child is four years old. “We don’t know what to do. At least we are able to give tsamak hats (dry bread) to the older one, but this newborn baby only eats breast milk. The poor girl’s milk dried up due to stress and malnutrition. She can’t feed her baby. We can’t even get formula. The poor girl doesn’t know what to do,” said Gayane. Her voice trembling with sorrow, she conveyed that a neighbor, herself a recent mother, was providing sustenance to the newborn.

Aware of the inadequacy of my words, I proposed arranging an online psychological consultation for the young mother. Gayane’s response, delivered with a condescending chuckle, was sobering: “Tsavd tanem, the elder child sleeps with an empty belly, and the newborn’s weight stagnates due to malnourishment. You offer psychological counseling, while people queue for hours just to secure bread, only to discard it in anger and despair, saying that they can’t relate with this mockery anymore. Which psychologist can help in this matter?”

Dr. Armine Barkhudaryan, a gynecologist who worked remotely with Artsakh women for months, remarked on the prevalence of malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies among pregnant women. “I lack concrete data,” she admitted, “but it’s clear that vitamin deficiencies and malnutrition are the chief culprits. Since July, miscarriages have surged to three times their previous numbers compared to the same period last year. Yet, our understanding remains preliminary, and no comprehensive research exists,” said Dr. Barkhudaryan.

Armenian women, in normal circumstances, rarely discuss their needs and predicaments, but during conflict, they often fade into an abstract, selfless existence—devoting themselves entirely to the welfare of other women and children in need.

Mariam (real name changed at the woman’s request), who relocated to Armenia for a challenging pregnancy, found herself struggling to recall the trajectory of her pregnancy during the blockade. Throughout our conversation, she continually expressed deep remorse. “I feel guilty,” she said. “There were many pregnant women in Artsakh enduring the blockade, while I found myself here in Armenia. My baby feeds well now, but others’ infants sleep with empty stomachs. Their mothers lack both breast milk and formula. I feel guilty,” she repeated.

In Armenian society, certain topics, especially during wartime, remain veiled in silence. Among these, perhaps the most untouched, is the issue of unwanted pregnancies and abortions.

Although Dr. Barkhudaryan does not have clear data, she believes that the women in the blockade had access to contraceptives. “The issue is not that women did not have access, but rather, there is a lack of education. Even if there were contraceptives left in pharmacies, many do not know how to use them. I am aware that many women resort to biological contraceptives, not condoms, hormonal contraceptives or intrauterine devices, and in that case the chance of not getting pregnant is 50-50,” she said.

From the start of the blockade, Artsakh women mobilized on an online platform, in a special group where they shared their resources and provided each other with necessary products and help. Naturally, the main topic of group discussions concerned children: women looking for diapers, baby food, clothes and medicine. Very rarely, women also looked for feminine hygiene products, including pads. Such discussions are often accompanied by reproaches and are described as amot (shameful). Artsakhtsi women, however, excel not only in their unity and care, but also through their high sense of solidarity. They protect each other and explain to those who attach such labels that women are already neglected. The basic norms of a woman’s dignified life must be ensured, and that the group was created to serve as a safe space for women, they say. 

According to data from the Women’s Resource Center of Armenia (WRCA), during the blockade women did not have the opportunity to purchase pads and other hygiene products. It was a fundamental problem: with constant water and electricity outages, people were unable to take care of their personal hygiene regularly. According to Anush Poghosyan, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights specialist at WRCA, menstrual hygiene is a basic human right and is essential for women’s health and well-being. “During the blockade, women’s right to a dignified life was violated. Women from Artsakh did not have access to basic household items like hot water and electricity. All that does have a horrible effect on women’s sexual and reproductive health,” said Poghosyan.

Mother and child shelter in a bunker (Siranush Sargsyan/Twitter)

A few days after the forced deportation of Artsakh residents

In Armenia, each day unfolds with uncertainty, making even the simplest of plans a distant luxury. A problem that was important a few hours ago gives way to a bigger problem that has just emerged.

As I write these words, my compatriots in Artsakh are being uprooted from their homes, leaving behind cherished gardens and the graves of their loved ones. I write these words mechanically, and Gayane is constantly in my mind. Is she in Stepanakert or on the road that stretches for kilometers to Goris? Is her niece able to feed her child? Where did she take shelter with her four-year-old and newborn children?

I am afraid to call Gayane, Mariam and others. What should I tell them? I don’t know what I should ask them. I was never taught at school, home or university what to ask people in such cases. I was only taught that Artsakh is ours…

Perhaps, in a moment of levity, I’ll offer them online psychological counseling once more, if only to share a fleeting moment of laughter before the tears return. I yearn to ask how they are, even though I already know the answer. I just want to call and say that I want to hug them tight, that I feel and understand them, yet I am paralyzed by fear and despair. I am at a loss for words, unsure of how to aid my sisters from Artsakh.

Yelena Sargsyan

Yelena Sargsyan

Yelena Sargsyan is a storyteller and journalist who primarily focuses on women's rights and LGBTQ+ issues in Armenia. She has contributed her work to various news outlets. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Yerevan State University and a master's in Near and Middle Eastern studies from the Institute of Oriental Studies, NAS RA.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.