Armenia: A Woman’s World in One Mountain Village

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Zabela Hovanian poses with her daughters, Alita (15), Alisa (11), Rita (8) and Suzana (3), whose father lives in Russia.

Each year, International Women’s Day arrives on March 8 in the Armenian village of Dzoragyugh amid a dark cloud of irony. Ninety-eight percent of the village’s male population --nearly half of its population of 5,000 people -- has migrated abroad in search of work. Those residents left behind jokingly call their village “a women’s club,” a place where women do everything – plough fields, raise children, officiate at funerals and somehow, through sheer grit, try to hold their fragmented families together.

Labor migration’s impact on Armenia’s economy has long been the subject of international studies, but its impact on the families left behind has largely escaped study. In Dzoragyugh, though, and other villages in the eastern region of Gegharkunik, that impact is difficult to ignore.

With an estimated 17,000 to 20,000 of the region’s residents migrating abroad each year to find work, Gegharkunik boasts Armenia’s highest rate of labor migration – up to 8 percent of its total population of 243,000, according to the National Statistical Service.

Most of these migrants, overwhelmingly men, return each autumn, but some simply vanish.

“Every time I close the door behind him, I feel like the house walls are collapsing,” said school principal Heriknaz Khachatrian, a mother of four, who, on her own, ploughs and sows fields, and tends cows and pigs when her husband leaves for Moscow each spring.  “The whole burden of the household falls on my shoulders, and the worst thing is that you never know whether your husband will return or not.”

Accidents, often at construction sites, frequently claim lives; Russian women pose another threat, assert some of Dzoragyugh’s left-behind wives.  

Thirty-two-year-old Zabel Hovanian, a mother of five girls, was 16 years old and pregnant when her husband left to find work in Moscow. She has as many children as her husband’s visits home. The youngest, a three-year-old, has never seen her father.

In the 16 years since he left Dzoragyugh for Russia, Hovanian’s husband has found another “wife,” a term used for a man’s girlfriend who lives with him outside of marriage. Hovanian recalled how her enraged husband reacted when she called his Russian girlfriend to talk with her. “He said ‘I told her that you are my sister. If you dare call one more time, I’ll come and kill both you and the children,’” claimed Hovanian.

Despite such threats and her husband’s ongoing absence, Hovanian, whose sole income comes from 50,000-dram (about $130) monthly welfare payments, says that she still will take her husband back if he ever returns home. “I will accept him for my children’s sake,” she explained. “If I don’t, the whole village will blame me; and I have four daughters to marry off. My disgrace would become their disgrace.”

Hovanian’s case is not unique. While many such men bring their Russia-born children to meet their Armenian half-siblings, and attempt to support both families, many others simply disappear, related Russian language teacher Laura Hovhannisian.

“It’s hard to stay a woman in a village,” Hovhannisian continued. “We till the land here, work like men, and our husbands often feel enchanted by Russian women’s beauty and carefree spirits, and are unable to return to village life.”

Breaking their legal ties with vanished husbands is not an option for the women of Gegharkunik, one of the most conservative and traditional regions in Armenia.

While Armenians generally frown on a second marriage for a divorced woman or widow, “in Gegharkunik, it’s simply prohibited by an unwritten law,” commented sociologist and pollster Aharon Adibekian. “Especially if the husband is alive, but has abandoned his family.”

The economically viable options for these men to stay in Gegharkunik, though, are not many. Farming is not profitable in the region’s 49 highland villages; winter can last for up to six months. Soviet-built industrial plants that once offered area residents an opportunity to earn an alternative living have long since closed.

Faced by dire unemployment, about 1.1 million people are believed to have left Armenia since 1991, according to the United Nations Development Programme. Labor migration remittances on average now surpass Armenia’s annual government budget by 10 percent.

To Artsvik Haroutiunian, a 51-year-old resident of Dzoragyugh, the word “migration” is synonymous with loss.  When her husband left 20 years ago for Russia to find a job, she believed his support would mean she would live without want. In the end, Haroutiunian lost to labor migration not only her husband, who dropped contact with the family, but her 23-year-old son, who died in an accident.

Now Haroutiunian focuses on trying to convince her remaining 16-year-old son not to follow his father and brother to Russia.  “Every time I hear the word migration, I feel like dying of pain and anguish,” she said with a sigh. “If only our country provided jobs, my husband wouldn’t have left, nor would have my son.”

Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan. Justyna Mielnikiewicz is a freelance photojournalist based in Tbilisi.

Armenia: A Woman’s World in One Mountain Village

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