There have been numerous forums and discussions taking place about the future of Nikol Pashinyan’s government, about the political and economic challenges, and the need for deep reforms to democratize all institutions in Armenia. But one discussion that has been overshadowed is related to the status of women.
During Pashinyan’s speech in Armenia’s National Assembly on May 8, I was elated to hear him make a strong statement that his government will work to advance women’s participation in Armenia and that it will work to engage more women in government. For a society that has been generally sexist and patriarchal, and for a population that has been oppressed for centuries, Pashinyan’s statement gave hope that we would finally break free from the archaic methods and systems of Armenia’s former regime.
My joy was short-lived, however, with Pashinyan’s new government appointments. Out of 20 newly appointed cabinet members (albeit interim), only two are women: Mane Tandilyan, Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, and Lilit Makunts, Minister of Culture. In other words, only 10 percent of the interim cabinet represents half of Armenia’s population.
Taking drastic changes to eradicate all former corrupt mechanisms perpetually engrained in Armenia’s establishments will indeed be an arduous and troublesome task – we don’t doubt that. But to ensure that Armenians support and partake in these drastic changes, government must fully represent its people. The closer government represents the configuration of its society, the more likely its political reforms will be stable and sustainable. This means that it is not just important to include women, but also to ensure a broad representation in government. This doesn’t necessarily mean that women political decision-makers will always raise issues that are relevant or important to women, or that male political leaders will always exclude them; nonetheless, the chances of ensuring policies that affect women are much higher.
So with this perplexed feeling, I took the time to sit down with women active in civil society organizations and political parties to see if they too felt the same level of concern about a cabinet that seemed like the traditional boys- club.
When asked if they would consider becoming a candidate for political office in Armenia’s government, many women I spoke with said that they wouldn’t. Some said they did not feel they were competent or qualified enough to take on the enormous responsibility of cleaning up the already institutionalized corruption that has been imbedded for so long.
Considering the critical challenges facing Armenia, they cannot see any woman who can be publicly accountable to ensure effective transformations.
Others perceive that it’s not their role to be stateswomen or government decision-makers since many women have conformed to traditional roles in our patriarchal society. Despite the countless qualified and educated women, they have felt diminished or discouraged by overpowering men who have minimized their concerns in the political arena, and have accepted this as de facto. The perception is that women’s role is to be the primary caretaker of childcare and household tasks, even if they are equally involved with their spouse to ensure a household income. Because of these stereotypical obstacles, Armenia is losing numerous good women leaders, and society is suffering due to their absence.
Finally, many other women express that developing democracy or transforming the core values of Armenia does not necessarily require an additional number of women in decision-making positions, and as long as Pashinyan develops an interim government that can radically transform the political landscape for the better, regardless of the number of men or women in government, then he will have gained the trust of both men and women alike.
This pattern of sexism continues to be justified and seems to contradict the numerous statements made by Pashinyan.
Even more disturbing than the gender gap, is the disparity between the ambitions of women and men, but this disparity or barrier can only be overcome with great cultural and political change – something we hope Pashinyan will address.
Public office decision-makers are responsible to ensure public trust (responsible and accountable to constituents, taxpayers or to the general public). The more democratic governance we have, the more likely we can ensure that the mechanisms for public accountability is effective and that gender concerns are addressed on political agendas. Political appointments should not be made based on a person’s personality or age. For citizens to feel empowered, political appointments must be inclusive.
Many of Pashinyan’s appointments are intelligent young men, some of whom, it can be argued, don’t have the relevant experience to lead departments or ministries. So why not give women the same opportunities to prove their political work, their integrity and commitment in public service? Why marginalize them?
Regardless of their lack of assurance or confidence, women (and men) can help break traditional stereotypes and must be encouraged to strive for greater influence in numerous areas of national concerns. It is extremely important to vigorously advocate for women’s political participation not only to ensure democracy, but to attain sustainable development in the country; it will ensure a higher GNP and improved business performance (Beer, 2009; Inglehart et al., 2004) parallel to those countries that have more women in parliament and legislature (such as Iceland and Finland).
The role of women in decision-making positions is a key condition for the empowerment of women and not only. When we state that we need a more democratic Armenia, we then must seriously consider and implement gender parity to ensure that both men and women believe and trust that political institutions are fair and legitimate. In other words, to ensure that all pertinent issues are addressed and to achieve true democracy, regardless of an interim government or a permanent one, political leaders must be a reflection of society. Without adequate representation of women in government, the highly anticipated cultural, socio-economic and political transformations will be limited.
Numerous global reports (Inter-Parliamentary Union, UN, OECD, Institute for Public Policy Research) continue to greatly emphasize how women’s participation in government has a positive impact on economic growth and stability, not to mention the positive impact on public perception, public trust and engagement, namely in education, labor-matters and employment (IPU, 2015; Miranda, 2005; OECD, 2014; Roberts, 2017)
The people of Armenia have undoubtedly chosen Nikol Pashinyan as their Prime Minister and enormous trust has been placed on his shoulders to raise the standards of this nation to which everyone can celebrate. The widespread political apathy has lifted and democratic processes rejuvenated primarily by implementing the meaning of ‘power of the people.’ But half of this ‘people’ includes women and other marginalized sectors of society, from people with disabilities to minorities. and so the people’s nominated Prime Minister is also accountable to all his constituents.
Armenia’s Velvet Revolution paved the way for Armenia to no longer be considered an outlier country or a patriarchal society. Pashinyan’s discourse has led many to renew their hopes for a revolutionized political and economic arena and for the greater empowerment of women in government. To ensure that this cultural and political change effectively takes place, the image of government should also change.
Women in political office are known to adopt different approaches to address problems more democratically (Jacobson et al., 2010; Paustian-Underdahl et al., 2014), to increasingly push policies related to education, health, social policies and child care which dramatically improve the socio-economic conditions of women and children (Volden et al., 2011). Greater representation of women can provide an ideal possibility to test the democratic consolidation of Armenia. Even though this article does not include the case of all underrepresented people (i.e. people with disabilities), the argument is the same for all minority groups. If the interests of half the population are underrepresented in government, political changes and relevant policies are less likely to represent their interests, and hence, the state is less democratically consolidated. In other words, women’s political participation and political leaders are necessary for democracy to function most effectively (Wolbrecht et al., 2007).
My hopes are still high in this crucial time of change in Armenia. But it’s not enough to hear speeches on fair and equal rights. For Armenia’s government to be genuinely representative of its people, then it must also have decision-making authorities that fully represent the identities and voices of its citizens (largely including women and people with disabilities), and actively advocate for a shift in cultural perceptions.Only then would Armenia be well equipped to avoid the risks and vulnerabilities related to corruption, democracy and rule of law that our ‘new’ Armenia truly deserves.
The time for equal representation of women in Armenia’s political leadership is now. In a time of national, regional and global challenges, Armenia cannot afford to waste the potential of half of its population. The country faces enormous challenges, from unemployment, poverty, health, education, weak economic models and threats to natural resources. The time is now to bring a diverse and inclusive set of insights, perspectives and talents. Only then will we really be armed to build a ‘new Armenia.’