Women in Nagorno-Karabakh: empowered for a better future?

25 Oct 2016
Nagorno-Karabakh Republic streets bathed in sunshine
In August 2016, Nagorno-Karabakh Republic celebrated 25 years of independence. In these 25 years, despite isolation and constant security threats from neighbouring Azerbaijan, the internationally-unrecognised small republic with little more than 145,000 inhabitants and a territory of 1,700 square miles, has managed to establish a small, but functioning state. 
Yet, the unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan is still looming especially since, after the 'Four-day war' in April 2016, the prospects of a much larger conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan are as visible as ever. 
Given this tense political situation, it is easy to overlook how this protracted conflict has disproportionately affected women and children. 
Therefore, I decided to embark on a research project examining the lives of women in Nagorno-Karabakh and travelled to the Republic in August 2015 and 2016. 
Many women have lost their husbands and sons and been displaced as a direct result of the war in the 1990s. In the most recent violent clash in April, a pregnant woman of just 18 years lost her husband. Since the fragile ceasefire was agreed in 1994, loss and suffering has been part of everyday life as soldiers get killed at the 200km long Line of Contact as part of regular ceasefire violations. 
Across the world, prolonged conflicts have been linked to changes in the roles of women and in social norms and attitudes towards gender roles. Although it is positive to see some female representation in the Nagorno-Karabakh National Assembly, simply counting female members in the National Assembly is not enough to measure women's empowerment. The fact that some women occupy positions in governmental institutions does not necessarily mean the needs and interests of women are taken into consideration in decision-making processes, as it is the case in Nagorno-Karabakh. 
Currently, the political representation of women is below the UN's recommended quota of 20 per cent. As it is an internationally-unrecognised state, Nagorno-Karabakh cannot ratify international treaties and agreements, and that includes those on gender issues. 
Thus, although the Republic has been practicing unilateral accession to international documents, the process of accession to those documents is only of declarative character. As a consequence, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is only accountable to itself for its commitment to implementing the provisions set out in any of those documents. 
Looking at the peace negotiation process and women's involvement in that, the picture becomes even more gloomy as the representation of women has been limited to the level of technical experts and observers. 
Some women's organisations participated in informal meetings about conflict resolution, as well as in parliamentary assemblies organised by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe (COE). Yet, compared to the rest of the world, this limited representation of women is familiar. A UN study of 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011 showed that only 4 per cent of signatories, 2.4 per cent of chief mediators, and 9 per cent of negotiators were women. 
If we think of empowerment less in terms of the measurement of female political participation and more in terms of a process, we can identify many women in Nagorno-Karabakh who have begun to use NGOs as a way in which they can voice their opinions and deal with the gender inequalities in their lives. 
Yet without being internationally-recognised as a Republic, there is only very limited international funding available to directly support NGOs to provide training and courses that empower women. For example, Nagorno-Karabakh is largely excluded from the UN empowerment programme. 
The gender disparity is not only apparent at higher political levels, but can also be seen throughout Nagorno-Karabakh society. As in other parts of the world affected by prolonged conflict, domestic violence is a serious issue in the region, yet largely unacknowledged and officially brushed 'under the carpet'. This makes it impossible to get any statistical data on the scale of the problem. 
Only a few organisations for women, such as the Shushi branch of the Women's Resource Center, Armenia (WRCA), directly address the problem of domestic violence. During our interview in August 2016, Gayane Hambardzumyan, the Director of WRCA in Shushi, told me that the biggest challenge in fighting domestic violence is that many women are still unlikely to speak out about their ordeal at home. 
According to Gayane the biggest achievement of the WRCA in Shushi to date is writing the Security Council Resolution 1325: Civil Society Monitoring Report in 2014. This perhaps is a very significant step in the right direction in empowering women in the future. 
As Gayane stressed, this report enabled Nagorno-Karabakh women to get their voices heard and tell the international community about the challenges they face in Nagorno-Karabakh. 
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