Gendered challenges: A closer look at female military service in Armenia

Hay Zinvor program

There is an old Armenian proverb that says, “A lion is a lion, no matter male or female.” This saying was raised in society when the Armenian government began to discuss the decision on voluntary-compulsory military service for women.

Plans for a professional army and the role of women

On June 26, 2023, the Armenian National Assembly adopted amendments and additions to the Law on Military Service and the Status of Soldiers. According to the new amendments, women ages 18-27 can enter voluntary-compulsory military service in the armed forces. At the end of a six month service, women receive one million drams and have the opportunity to apply for the “homeland defender” program, which would add another five years of service.

Voluntary-compulsory military service by women was also included in the army reforms presented in the five-year plan of the Armenian government for 2021-2026. The main goal of these reforms, as stated in the plan, is to create a professional army. The program states, “Women’s involvement in the armed forces will continue to grow.”

According to civil society groups, this state program has a number of problematic aspects. There are key issues and risks regarding women’s reproductive health needs, vulnerability to gender-based violence and discrimination, and their dignity and security that have not been thoroughly examined and prepared for. Do the personnel of the armed forces have the proper education and understanding to accept women as full-fledged soldiers, taking into account the discriminatory attitudes towards women in Armenian society? In addition, it is unclear what problem the Ministry of Defense wants to solve by involving women in the armed forces. Even without the adoption of this decision, women can join the armed forces or study at military educational institutions if they wish.

Nazeli Movsesyan, the coordinator of the Department of Oversight of Defense and Security Sector of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly – Vanadzor, told the Weekly that judgments about women’s military service can only be made based on the study of international examples, because the Armenian government did not discuss the issue in advance or listen to the opinions of experts. 

Do the personnel of the armed forces have the proper education and understanding to accept women as full-fledged soldiers, taking into account the discriminatory attitudes towards women in Armenian society?

“The plan says that the involvement of women in the army should increase by 2026, but it does not say by what mechanisms this will be done and whether all the risks have been taken into account. The government says that there will be a separate battalion for women, but the question is how much the adaptation of the infrastructure is suitable for women. These are questions that still don’t have an answer at the moment, which is very worrying,” Movsesyan said.

The Armenian Ministry of Defense, however, believes that the risks should be assessed during, and not before, the implementation of the program. The Ministry said this in response to an official written request from the Weekly.

The Peace Dialogue NGO carried out monitoring of defense sector activities, which, among many problems, identified public approaches to women’s service. For example, within the “Zinuzh” media program produced by the Defense Ministry, women are presented in a secondary and supporting role, even though a video from the program shows a female soldier who participated in war operations.

Anush Harutyunyan, a researcher at the Peace Dialogue NGO, said in a conversation with the Weekly that the hasty actions taken by the government took them by surprise. They did not have time to conduct proper research on the topic. “This move is probably related to increasing the number of personnel in the army. I cannot say what exactly the Ministry of Defense was thinking when taking this step, but I personally do not think that it is a step towards gender equality,” Harutyunyan said.

Those assumptions seem credible, because back in October 2023, when Minister of Defense Suren Papikyan announced that the armed forces would be ready to accept women by the summer of 2024, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced, “We need to apply all resources to have a predetermined number of conscripts.” About two months later, a decision was quickly adopted so that the army could accept women sooner by January 2024. Thus, Milena Yenokyan, the first and only female volunteer-compulsory soldier, began her military service, solemnly taking an oath on January 28, the Day of the Army of the Republic of Armenia.

Obstacles faced by servicewomen 

The entry of women into the military sphere began in 2013, when women were allowed to receive military education and join the ranks of the Armenian army.

Some of the female students studying at military educational institutions told the Weekly, under the condition of anonymity, that they face difficulties in addressing hygiene issues. “Usually, we go to the bathroom as a group. One of the girls holds the door from the outside while the other takes a bath. They didn’t fix the door handle for months, even though we told them a thousand times,” said one of the girls with a shy smile.

For more than 10 years, women have been in the military field, but they study and work in male-centered settings. Instead of engaging in the actual learning process, they are forced to spend most of their resources on basic gender-based hygiene issues.

The new amendments envisage a separate area for women soldiers in a new battalion. However, the building intended for female soldiers is still under construction, while the state has committed to accepting women in the army from the start of the year. Regarding construction, the Ministry told the Weekly, “Currently, construction works are underway at the permanent location of the women’s battalion. The building is being reconstructed in accordance with international standards, about which the Ministry of Defense will share information upon completion.”

There are a number of key questions regarding whether enough work has been done to adapt the military infrastructure to the needs and physiological characteristics of servicewomen in order to ensure their dignified military service. In response to this question, the Ministry said, “The building intended for the Women’s battalion will meet the needs and physiological characteristics of women, starting with toilets, showers, recreation, entertainment rooms and classrooms.”

The Women’s Resource Center NGO is currently conducting research on the topic. Advocacy specialist Anna Hovhannisyan, among other issues, singled out problems related to the sexual and reproductive health of women preparing to serve in the army. “How prepared is the system for women’s physiological features, such as the menstrual cycle? Is the state ready to provide female hygiene pads to servicewomen or not? There are many challenges, starting from such basic issues, ending with more global issues,” said the expert.

The Ministry of Defense informed the Weekly that with the involvement of international and local experts, seminars and discussions are being held for female servicemen, during which women’s reproductive health issues are also addressed.

Regarding whether the monthly supplies provided to servicewomen address women’s needs, including female hygiene pads, the Ministry replied: “This process, regardless of sex, is carried out by the RA Minister of Defense’s order N. Taking into account the fact that compulsory military service on voluntary grounds is a new institution, the possible issue of amending the said order is under discussion for the purpose of allocating products necessary for women’s sexual and reproductive health.”

In other words, the Ministry accepts servicewomen into the army, while the issues of meeting their special needs have not been resolved, and it is not clear when these issues will be resolved.

Hovhannisyan called the state’s approach to the sexual and reproductive issues in the army “frivolous.” “I will never forget how MPs in the National Assembly discussed the issue of women getting pregnant in the army. That question turned into joy. They announced that it would be welcome, and the state would take care of the matter. From that discussion, I realized how frivolous the approaches are. Such risks should be seriously discussed and not perceived so superficially,” she said.

The question of women’s safety and dignity in the army

Women in Armenia face all kinds of discrimination and are subjected to all possible forms of violence. In a military system that has always been male-centered and tailored to men’s needs, women are more vulnerable to gender-based violence. Every year, through research carried out all over the world, new data is published with terrifying statistics of sexual and other types of violence against female soldiers.

The same is true in Armenia. Although it is not publicly discussed, female soldiers are subjected to gender-based discrimination and violence, as detailed in news and research reports. 

Women in the army are often sexualized, and their roles are not taken seriously. When problems arise, they are “neutralized” through sexualization or sex scandals. Such a case occurred at the end of last year, when a female soldier was discredited, subjected to discrimination and sent sexually explicit photos. Two other high-ranking servicewomen have been removed from the army in a similar way.

In response to the question of whether mechanisms will be implemented to protect female soldiers from similar challenges and risks, the Ministry said: “The Ministry of Defense’s Human Rights Moral and Psychological Support Department has a hotline service, and in any case of violations of human rights, soldiers can call that hotline, as well as send an anonymous survey by email.”

The question arises: based on the brutal experience of 2020, how will the state ensure the safety and dignity of female soldiers in case of a new war?

According to the advocacy team at the Women’s Resource Center, the system is not ready to accept women into the army. “The system is not even ready to accept men. Over the years, we have witnessed cases of violence against male soldiers in the army, including sexual violence. Imagine now that women appear in that system…No matter how much they say that the women’s department will be separate, the officers will continue to be men with immense power. There are many questions in this regard, for example, whether or not the officers have been trained to work with female soldiers,” Hovhannisyan said.

The Department for Work with Female Soldiers of the Moral and Psychological Support Department of the Armed Forces, created at the end of 2019, has been dissolved. The Weekly learned this through a written inquiry, as the Ministry has not issued an official statement about it. “The functions of the department are carried out by the MOD Human Rights and Integrity Building Center, under the coordination of the minister’s assistant for work with servicewomen,” the Ministry said. In other words, the issues of a whole battalion of women will be regulated only through the coordination of one assistant minister.

The issue of guaranteeing the life and dignity of servicewomen is also worrying. During the 44-day war of 2020, the Armenian side suffered casualties among servicewomen. The particular cruelties applied to female servicemen, the torture and desecration of bodies and the dissemination of violent images in social networks were qualified as war crimes. Women receive such cruel treatment mainly due to their gender. The question arises: based on the brutal experience of 2020, how will the state ensure the safety and dignity of female soldiers in case of a new war?

Gender equality or more burdens on women’s shoulders?

In September 2023, while presenting the plan for women’s voluntary-compulsory military service, Defense Minister Papikyan stated, “This step will contribute to gender equality in Armenia.” But will increasing the number of women in the army solve the existing gender issues in the country, and will only involving women in the army contribute to gender equality? Can we talk about gender equality and justice when women in Armenia carry more burdens than ever? Along with unpaid housework, birthing children for the state, taking care of the family, now women will serve in the army. Is this approach by the state an indicator of equality?

The Women’s Resource Center, being a feminist organization, believes that these theses about gender equality are superficial and unjustified. “There cannot be any trend of gender equality here. With this step, the state is merely trying to solve the issue of human potential. Taking into account the escalations in border areas, we understand that there is a problem with the number of soldiers, and with this step, the state is trying to solve the issue of the number of people in the army,” Hovhannisyan said.

The Ministry of Defense says that women dream of serving, but do not have the opportunity. However, the statistics show a different picture – only one female recruit in the entire republic. “The Ministry of Defense says that it is because they made a wrong PR move, and now they plan to inform girls in high schools about this opportunity. This is a very, very dangerous operation for me. They go to teenagers, romanticize and present something, the risks of which have not been properly calculated, nor properly worked on,” said Hovhannisyan.

PM Pashinyan said, “There are no men or women in the army. There are only soldiers in the army.” However, with this dangerous thesis, the gendered characteristics of people serving in the army are dismissed at the state level. If there are no genders in the army, then gendered needs are artificially nullified. Pashinyan’s statement is complemented by the incomplete activity of the Ministry of Defense, which launched a program without fundamental, specific and purposeful works and changes.

There are many questions and very few answers about this state program. While the program presents many dangers and risks for women, there are almost no solutions, except for some on paper that have not yet been put into practice. This program is like a test of human life: the state imposes on women its inadequately developed program and declares that in practice it will see what risks and problems arise and then work to solve them. 

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.



  2. Traditionally women played an important role during the first Artsakh War. Their presence will give a moral boost to the entire Armenian armed forces, something that our historical enemy does not have that option for their female soldiers.

  3. I don’t know if women should be in the army?

    What if the Turks capture them?

    We all know what the Turks do to Armenian women.

    Do I even have to say?

    It’d be better to make all Armenian men of fighting age, 18 – 30, get into shape whilst older men, 30 – 50, could train to be in the reserves.

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