In Part I of this two-part series, human rights activist and researcher Anahit Simonyan spoke with Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Zaruhi Batoyan, Minister of Health Arsen Torosyan and Deputy Minister of Education Arevik Anapiosyan about their opinion and vision for a human rights-based approach to policy making. In Part II, Simonyan delves into a number of field specific issues from poverty, to discrimination, health protection, ethnic minorities to women’s rights and more.
Do you believe that poverty is a violation of human rights and dignity?
Zaruhi Batoyan, Minister of Labor and Social Affairs of Armenia
Yes, I do.
The RA Government’s plan identifies employment as the main tool and engine to overcome poverty. How does this approach correspond to the human rights-based understanding of poverty? Is this approach sufficient and adequate?
Of course, this approach is not sufficient enough. This is just one of the approaches to overcome poverty. The state is obligated to create opportunities for people to live decent lives and have decent employment. With this in mind, employment is just one of the tools. Other methods or tools for overcoming poverty is the improvement of our taxation system and accessibility to healthcare. However, the main aim of our Ministry is to create employment opportunities, ensure development plans, guarantee transition and completely eradicate poverty. This means that our Ministry works with those who have never received an adequate education, who have not had sufficient employment opportunities due to the taxation system and who have had difficulties accessing adequate healthcare. This, unfortunately, means that we mainly deal with the consequences of dire situations. It is important for us that the right to employment is guaranteed to all, so people can have jobs that are registered and within the law. This way the state can provide guarantees and create opportunities.
In Armenia children are being left out of the school system. One of the main reasons for this is poverty. Mrs. Anapiosyan, today there are 214,000 children living in poverty, 11,000 of those are living in extreme poverty. What do these numbers mean to you as Deputy Minister of Education and Science of Armenia?
Arevik Anapiosyan, Deputy Minister of Education and Science of Armenia
These are problems relating to primary and secondary poverty. In both cases, children have fallen below the poverty line because of their family’s financial situation. To overcome extreme family poverty, the former government passed a decision to increase the minimum social benefits given to families. If I’m not mistaken it was eight or nine thousand AMD. This clearly is not enough.
We work with our colleagues at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (MLSA) and we are aware of this issue. However, as the Ministry of Education and Science, we can only identify the problem and thus advise the MLSA to prioritize the issue, making it possible for these families to receive support first. However, the solution to this problem is not under the Ministry of Education’s jurisdiction. This has its consequences. Children are left out of the education system due to poverty. This must be solved not as a result of the issue, but by trying to understand what were the reasons for this issue.
What is the position of the Ministry of Health with regard to poverty reduction?
Arsen Torosyan, Minister of Health
I believe, and it has also been proven, that healthcare expenses are one of the main reasons for poverty in the world. The way we should approach this issue is to try to prevent people from falling below the poverty line because of expenses related to health and also guarantee those living below the poverty line with accessible and affordable healthcare. It is within this framework that we have invested in a health package for 230,000 citizens. What we’re trying to do with this package is to ensure that when someone needs heart surgery, which costs 2 million AMD and they can’t afford it because their monthly salary is 20,000 AMD, then we will cover those costs so that person can stay healthy, work and overcome poverty. If we don’t do this then people will remain poor.
Thus, we are giving people the opportunity to ensure their livelihood by being able to work and create despite their illnesses. We are ensuring certain mechanisms, for example, insurance, etc. This way we are allowing people who are employed but have a salary that only covers their monthly basic expenses to never have to pay that five million. We are preventing them for having to sell their house, or end up in poverty when they can’t save the life of the breadwinner of the family. Clearly, our approach is that health is directly related to poverty in terms of its eradication and prevention.
Child labor exists in Armenia. This prevents children from receiving an education, depletes them of a healthy life and is an obstacle for several main human rights. It greatly prevents a child’s development, limits opportunities to overcoming poverty. The Government’s plan does not include anything on resolving the issue of child labor. Will this issue be included in the policy vision of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs?
Yes, it will because we have certain obligations. However, I believe that this issue has serious problems since it’s difficult to recognize and identify. This is especially true in the regions where children are working in the fields and mountains. It is indeed a serious issue. We have to work to solve this. What is important here is cooperation with the Ministry of Education and Science, the communities, local self-governing bodies, and the police. In short, interdepartmental cooperation is important to ensure that children aren’t being left out of the education system due to labor.
There are field-specific policy issues that restrict the right to education for many. Recognizing education as a right assumes that these issues need to be addressed. Children in Armenia are being left out of the education system. The Government’s plan does not focus on this problem. Will the solution to this key issue be included in the Ministry’s policy?
I believe the Government’s plan does focus on this because it includes inclusive education. When we talk about children being left out of the education system, it usually concerns policies for inclusive education not being implemented properly. For years former governments have ignored not only secondary educational institutions but preschool education as well. We now have a clear program and a budget to carry out preschool educational services in all parts of Armenia for the next three years. In regards to finding children who have been left out of the education system, we do not currently have an educational management and informations system developed (EMIS) by the National Center for Education, as well SWIS (School-wide Information System) that integrates EMIS with police databases. However, we do have an issue when it comes to protecting the rights of these children because the Constitution of Armenia does not allow the Minister of Education and Science to pass any order for which he/she does not have the right to by law. When we start implementing the EMIS and SWIS systems, then this should allow the Minister the right to be able to pass an order to all schools obligating them to register everyone in their system. Thus we will be able to integrate EMIS with police databases. Police databases in their turn show us which person belongs to what age group and that accordingly we will see who has to go to school. In short, we will be able to find those children who are of school age but are not going to school and we will understand what kind of work has to be done with them so that they can go to school.
With regard to people with psychological issues, HIV/AIDS, different gender identities, and those living in poverty, it seems that healthcare is the most stereotyped field both in terms of attitude and provided services. All of this leads to inaccessibility in the field. What approach is the Ministry of Health taking in terms of overcoming issues relating to discrimination taking place in healthcare?
I don’t agree that our field is the most stereotyped and the most discriminatory. I believe that the medical community is more tolerant due to their awareness because it better understands what mental and physical disabilities mean more than people outside of the medical field.
I don’t really know what more we can do with our policies for guaranteeing the right to health for all citizens. We are doing everything we can in providing better services for people with disabilities so they can live healthy lives.
In terms of attitude, I understand that it is difficult for adults to change their attitude. To be able to do this we have to go back to their roots, i.e. school, kindergarten, medical students who have yet to become doctors. Yes, doctors do have trouble with portraying more positive attitudes. This can be taught during their medical education, however, we are not doing anything at this point because we can’t. We can start with advocating the Ministry of Education and Science (MoES) to get involved in that process because they are the ones with that jurisdiction. The best thing we can do is solve this issue through the MoES. However, I’m not confident that giving medical students classes on attitude and approach will significantly change anything. I believe we have to dig deeper and go back to their childhood, to schools, so once they’re older they don’t have to learn how to change their attitudes and approach.
Violence and discrimination systemically take place in Armenia. Different groups are subjected to violence and discrimination leaving them socially vulnerable and unprotected. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs has the responsibility to ensure a person’s right to social protection and social rights. Does your Ministry include a solution to violence against different groups in its social protection vision?
Yes, it is included in our plan. To be clear, violation of human rights can be considered as violent acts. This is pivotal for violations of any type of right and we have much to do here. In our collaborations with other ministries, we have a role to play as the leader in protecting human rights and guaranteeing a society without violence for families. This means that we have to work on preventing and denouncing violence, raising awareness, as well as protecting and creating mechanisms for a person's protection. Violence cannot be accepted in any way and there is no justification for violence, even several so-called distorted justifications are not acceptable. We have serious work to do in terms of developing strategies that will prevent family violence. We also plan to take steps in the near future to improve laws, especially since experts in the field, as well and different ministries, are raising these issues. It has already been a year and a half that the law has come to effect within this framework. This has allowed us to see what issues there are. We have to work towards fixing those issues.
Human rights-based education excludes the militarization of education and the dissemination of intolerance. It assumes the opposite - providing knowledge on tolerance, peace, respect for human rights. Our education is militarized and throughout the years this tendency has taken root and found its place within the education system. How is this reflected in the Ministry’s vision?
There are different layers we have to look at. We are planning on reviewing certain criteria in our education system for which there are several principles that have to be taken into consideration. For example, maintaining the principle of “education for stable development,” which assumes the exclusion of gender discrimination and any type of discrimination from our education system. For years, and specifically for the past eight months, we have tried to raise the issue of how important it is to have peace education in the region in different UNESCO meeting rooms. Why do we stress the importance of the region as a whole? Bearing in mind our geographical location we have to try to have peace education not only in Armenia but in Artsakh as well since it is a party to the conflict. In this regard, we have a clear strategy for textbooks and educational programs. We are also trying to have a separate section for peace education in our education system.
We have to take into consideration the section from the UN founding papers regarding the right to self-protection. Our education policy should entail a clear acknowledgment of our geopolitical situation, a clear acknowledgment that for us peace is a goal. At the same time it should entail a clear understanding that for the solution to our geopolitical conflict, the rights of the people living in our region should not be discriminated against in any way.
An issue that is being hotly debated today is the subject of church history being mandatory in schools and its potential contradiction to the constitutional rights of freedom of mind, conscience, and religion. What is your stance on this?
Conceptually, history of religion as a subject should be taught in schools or secondary educational institutions. I have mentioned many times that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has principles on how to teach religion also known as the Toledo Guiding Principles. The OECD and we as well clearly state this is a priority. We have to develop textbooks based on these principles. If we don’t, then what we are left with is propaganda, because education has to be secular. This is the situation we are in currently, this is how our textbooks are. However, the criteria are being changed. When these changes happen then textbooks will be written accordingly.
The Government’s plan states that the Ministry of Health has to focus on reproductive rights. In terms of sexual and reproductive health and the protection and attainment of that right, what role does sex education play in secondary educational institutions? What is your stance on this?
First of all, sex education in schools is absolutely necessary. Of course, different pedagogical techniques have to be used and information should be given in amounts according to age. In this regard we have a lot of work to do, however, nothing has really been done up till now. We are in talks with the Ministry of Education and Science on this matter and we are negotiating to see what can be the best version. I believe that information should be given piece by piece for every age group accordingly, so when students and adolescents reach a certain age where they will have to deal with these issues, then they will completely understand their own health, threats, and rights properly.
As a woman, citizen and human rights defender, it is of paramount importance to me to know what the position and vision of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is on the protection of human rights.
I consider myself a feminist and this is important. It’s important because women have to play a role in decision-making and strategy development. Policies regarding women should be coordinated by women. The issue of women’s rights entails that at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs the minister or the deputy ministers should be women. This principle should be maintained. More women organizations have to be involved in this process as well. I can say that right after the Velvet Revolution when I started working as Deputy Minister till now, their involvement in policy and decision making processes has increased more than ever before and this makes me very happy.
The protection of women’s rights and creating opportunities for them will be one of our top priorities. We will be carrying out programs aimed at promoting women's employment, which were nonexistent till now, as well as developing policies that are more participatory. I believe in this regard we already have progress. However, we should still work more promptly and productively.
There are several issues regarding the attainment of women’s rights. These issues include discrimination, violence, as well as an atmosphere of discrimination and violence. These are being propagated and spread through education. What is the position of the Ministry of Education and Science on this?
The issue is not if we have a position or not. There is one clear truth: women and men have to have equal rights. The working group developing our education criteria also includes experts on gender equality and they have to approach this issue within the spectrum of women’s rights. I continue to believe that the first person to blame for promoting discrimination against women’s rights are women. They are both teachers and mothers. Our issue is providing relevant education and information. I don’t think we need a specific stance here. Women’s rights are one of the top priorities to be dealt with in regards to what we want to develop in education criteria. When we see how gender roles are divided in textbooks, it’s distressing.
There is an issue with regard to the assessment and awareness of ethnic minority needs and their role and visibility in the whole process of policy development for them. What plans does the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs have in this regard?
First of all, we have to increase their participation, because this is an issue. We can’t make decisions for other people. In my experience and during my time at the Ministry, I can’t remember anything being done for ethnic minorities compared to other groups. This is a serious flaw for the Ministry. I believe that every institution, especially ministries, should not be representing minorities, but have them become more involved in the process. In cases dealing with ethnic minorities, and I haven’t dealt with many, I have never seen them actively bring up their own issues. Of course, the reason for this is known and understandable. I hope that now it won’t be that way, because those reasons have also been political. Often, people have avoided bringing up issues within their communities for clear reasons: they believe that their issues will not be favored by the government, etc. We have to stop this practice and guarantee their involvement.
In healthcare, there are certain indications of discrimination and violence towards people with mental health issues. In general, there is a need to develop clear mechanisms for the protection of the rights of people with mental health issues. What stance does the Ministry of Health have on this issue?
Mental health, in general, has been on the radar of the global medical community recently. They even state that there is no physical health without mental health. There are two things that the Ministry of Health will be doing. First, we have to guarantee good conditions in psychiatric institutions both physically and morally. This would include changing attitudes towards our patients and making sure that they receive treatment and live in good conditions. Second, and this is very important, mental health cases should be moved from institutions to health clinics. This way fewer people will be hospitalized and instead they can live with their families, within society, but under supervision from an institution located near their home.
The latter requires a more global approach as it is not dependent only on our field. It also depends on society’s attitudes. Today we see families who don’t want children with mental health issues and want to isolate them. Our goal is to create the opposite atmosphere - educate society and create conditions for accessible services near people’s homes, to return these people to their families and reintegrate them into society.
There are many environmental issues today. What is the Ministry’s vision on the right to health protection, environmental protection, and mining?
Our vision in this context is evidence-based. This means that if it has been proven that something is harming our health we are against it no matter what the last name is of the stakeholders. However, it has to be clearly proven based on evidence. It should never be emotional, irrational and something of myths and this happens quite often. It should also not be influenced by the interests of stakeholders which is something we also see happen often. We now want to carry out research ourselves in this sphere and we will reveal the results, including the rates of sickness and death in specific regions due to different chemicals. In reality, it is not easy to prove if death and sickness in a specific region are related to existing factories or mines in those regions. This is quite a serious, difficult and long process. However, we take part in almost all expert research that takes place. Usually, we are invited by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which is a state non-commercial organization and an expert in the field. I believe that we need a balanced approach to this. If there is proof, actions need to be taken.