This year for the first time young women in Armenia can enroll in the country’s two military academies. Some observers say coeducation has more to do with Armenia’s dire demographic situation than with any desire to promote gender equality.
In June, the Defense Ministry announced that physically fit women over the age of 18 who had passed exams in mathematics and physics and finished high school would be eligible for admission at Yerevan’s four-year Vazgen Sarkisian Military Institute and the Marshal Khanpertsian Institute of Military Aviation. Unlike male students, they will be required to return home in the evenings – a practical function due to the lack of coed dormitories. After acquiring a bachelor’s degree, they will be required to serve as officers in the military for 10 years.
Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian termed the change “part of large-scale reforms in the army” and an “opportunity for representatives of the gentle sex” to gain a “higher military education and professional growth.”
Representatives of the two academies, speaking on condition of anonymity, told EurasiaNet.org that interest among women in enrolling was higher than anticipated. As of the July 1 application deadline, 25 women between the ages of 21 and 23 applied for admission, they said.
Currently, more than 1,500 women are serving in Armenia’s armed forces, mostly in administrative capacities. Women are not subject to conscription. Between 1992 and 1994, however, around 600 women fought as volunteer soldiers, doctors and nurses in Nagorno-Karabakh war against Azerbaijan; 18 were killed.
Armenia’s move leaves Azerbaijan as the only country in the South Caucasus that does not have coeducational military academies.
Reactions to the decision to admit women to military academies generally have been favorable. Defense Ministry representative Artsrun Hovhannisian explained that Armenia is keeping with the times by now facilitating women’s access to leadership positions in the military. “In this era of technical development, physical strength somewhat yields to [other] capacities, and women are usually quite capable -- they are quick and agile, hardworking and persistent,” Hovhannisian elaborated. “Right now, a strong mind matters the most, and in that respect we have no right to discriminate between boys and girls.”
But some observers assert that coeducation is the byproduct of necessity, not the result of an enlightened impulse. Human rights activist Artur Sakunts, a longtime advocate for soldiers’ rights within the army, believes that women’s admission into military academies has little to do with gender equality and a lot to do with the army being unable to meet conscription quotas.
“It is simply absurd to talk about gender equality in an army severely challenged with social inequality,” said Sakunts, who heads the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Vanadzor office. “This is, undoubtedly, an attempt to somehow resolve the quota issue.”
During the 1990s --amid the Nagorno-Karabakh War, as well as the economic upheaval that followed the 1991 Soviet collapse -- Armenia experienced a drastic decline in its birthrate. In the 1980s, some 40,000 boys had been born each year, but, in 1995, one year after the cease-fire with Azerbaijan, that number fell to 25,697, according to National Statistical Service data. Factoring in migration, “the number is even smaller,” commented Karine Kulumjian, head of the Service’s Department of Demography.
Some experts claim that the army, now faced with a dearth of draftable 18-year-old men, is having trouble maintaining troop numbers. Anxieties are exacerbated by the fact that Azerbaijan, using its windfall from energy exports, is engaged in a military buildup.
Hovhannisian, the Armenian Defense Ministry representative, disputed the notion that the admission of women to military academies was motivated by the military’s demographic quandary. Indeed, he went so far as to deny the existence of a numbers problem at all. “First of all, we do not expect that the amount of women might be so high that it could solve it,” he stated. (Men slightly outnumber women at the age of conscription.) “Secondly, we do not have a quota issue, because every year we recruit more contract servicemen and by that fill the conscription gap. So, this is not an issue.”
Military psychologist David Jamalian, a lecturer at the European Regional Educational Academy, echoed Hovhannisian’s opinion. Letting women into military academies “is more about granting an opportunity,” Jamalian contended. “We do not deny the reality, which is that the army has the issue of filling its ranks, but not this way. Having a professional army is the proper perspective, and the Defense Ministry is gradually getting there.”
For Maj. Gen. Arkadi Ter-Tadevosian, a Karabakh War veteran, the motivation for this change is secondary to the results. “I felt the importance of women’s presence during the hostilities,” Ter-Tadevosian recounted. “With their level of preparedness and sense of responsibility, women always make men more restrained and balanced and aspire for improvement, and that can only do the army good.”
Gayane Abrahamyan is a freelance reporter and editor in Yerevan.