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Empowering women in the farthest corners of Armenia

Catherine Wolf, Programme Analyst with UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality, and Zabel Hayruni of Green Lane talking to  beneficiaries in the community of Aghavnadzor. Photo: Green Lane/Armen Sarukhanyan

Armenia is a land of contrasts. The high altitudes appear stark, but at the same time beautiful; the landscape looks at once aloof, but also inviting. The same feelings can be drawn from its people. Some might appear unapproachable at first, but soon they will pull you in with their warmth and hospitality.

Armenia’s hospitality also contrasts with its rampant misogyny—the country has the third highest rate of sex-selective abortions in the world, and gender equality is misunderstood as a threat to family values. Combined with a severe lack of economic opportunities propelling men to migrate, there is an added sense of insecurity and risk of violence against women and girls. Yet, there are only two women’s shelters in the country, both run by local women’s organizations. By helping rural women access the means to be productive members of their communities, Green Lane Agricultural Assistance, with the support of UN Women Fund for Gender Equality (FGE), is transforming women’s lives and their communities in some of the most remote areas of Armenia.

The "raspberry women" of Ashotavan had a monument built for the driver of their new-found economic opportunity. Photo: Green Lane/Armen Sarukhanyan

We left Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, on a sunny morning in April, to meet with the women who are part of the project, “Economic Empowerment of Rural Women Groups through Capacity-building.” In early 2016, Green Lane received a USD 315,000 grant from the UN Women Fund for this project, and has since provided training to 160 rural women on sustainable organic farming techniques and developing business plans, as well as equipment and seedlings needed to implement their plans. The trainings also raised their awareness about gender equality and women’s leadership.

In most rural areas in Armenia, people rely on small scale and subsistence farming. Fruit-based products, such as dried fruits, wine and jams are popular. However, due to the lack of appropriate processing equipment, a lot of produce would perish, or be used mostly for personal use. The project provided fruit dehydrators and other equipment so that women farmers could process and diversify their products, and earn a stable income throughout the year.

Alina Gevorgyan, 32 years old, is a member of the same women’s group. She had to quit her job after she was married and had children.

Haykush Hovhannisyan, a member of the Aghavnadzor community Women's Group, working on her beehives. Green Lane is providing her group with more equipment to create sustainable income. Photo: Green Lane/Armen Sarukhanyan

After a two-and-a-half-hour ride into the mountains, we arrived at the first community served by the project—Aghavnadzor—where I met Haykush Hovhannisyan.

“Before the project, women stayed indoors,” shared Hovhannisyan. “We didn’t even consider that we could make our own money. We were always ambitious and active…but we didn’t have the means and mechanisms. With the help of Green Lane, we are now more knowledgeable and more profitable. Working together as a women’s group, as a team, has made us better and more competitive in our business.”

The people of Aghavnadzor have grown grapes for generations. High-quality and rare grape varieties, such as Areni, Voskehat, and Nazeli grow here, but limited processing facilities meant that fruits were mostly sold fresh, and home-made wine and sundried fruits didn’t meet market requirements. With the skills training and equipment provided by Green Lane, 36-year-old Haykush Hovhannisyan, together with 10 other women from the community, has taken grape cultivation to a new level. Using modern equipment and methods, they have improved the quality of their produce and earning much more than they ever did.

Alina Gevorgyan, 32 years old, is a member of the same women’s group. She had to quit her job after she was married and had children.

Alina Gevorgyan, a member of the Aghavnadzor community Women's group. Photo: Green Lane/Armen Sarukhanyan

“The burden of taking care of the children and my in-laws was too much,” Gevorgyan explained to me. “Now I am chair of the parents’ council and we, the women’s group, often meet to discuss our common project, especially marketing. After receiving a training from Green Lane, we developed a business plan… We even came up with a brand—‘Women and Wine’!”

As I interacted with the women and their families, I saw how the project has improved the gender dynamics within the family: for instance, Alina Gevorgyan’s husband now helps her at home by taking care of the children when she is busy with the business. Financial independence has led to more women participating in decision-making at the community level. “Not only the men should share their opinion… Men and women, we can be breadwinners together,” said Haykush.

About three-and-a-half hours from Aghavnadzor, we drove through serpentine roads to reach our next destination, the remote village of Ashotavan. Life is harder here, higher up in the mountain. In Ashotavan, we met Lusine Yazoulyan, who is part of a women’s group benefiting from the same FGE-funded project. Yazoulyan’s group now grows raspberries, and they have done so well that their village has been declared a raspberry region.

Lusine Yazoulyan and another member of the Ashotavan community Women's Group, working on their new raspberry orchard. Green Lane is providing them with seedlings and beehives. Photo: Green Lane/Armen Sarukhanyan

“Before working with Green Lane, we didn’t know much about agriculture and business. Green Lane gave us the support we needed, they taught us how to use rainwater for irrigation and compost as fertilizer,” she shared.

Yazoulyan, 48, lives by herself in a small stone cottage. Her husband is a migrant worker in Russia and comes home one or two times a year. “When he [husband] came back to see that I was able to make almost as much as him in a month, he was proud of me,” said Yazoulyan.

Yazoulyan’s son, like many others, had moved to the capital to find work. But now that the village has means to grow a business and have sustained income, he has expressed the desire to come back and work in the village.

Catherine Wolf and Zabel Hayruni of Green Lane, talking to beneficiaries in the community of Ashotavan. Photo: Green Lane/Armen Sarukhanyan

The FGE-funded project in Armenia will conclude in 2019, and aims to help women’s groups in 15 villages build self-sustaining businesses, with access to markets.

Before we left, Yazoulyan said to me: “Our project gives us a goal to work towards. I am exploring different ideas…It seems like before all of this, I was sleeping, and now I have woken up.”

Her last remark stayed with me, as we drove back to Yerevan. This is what it feels like, to “leave no one behind”—the promise of the Sustainable Development Goals—to reach the people whom no one usually reaches.



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