THE STATE OF WOMEN IN ARMENIA. While change is underway, gender inequality and gender-based violence (GBV) continues to be a problem in Armenia — negatively impacting social cohesion and economic development. The absence of gender equality in the workplace lowers women’s prospects of employment and earning compared to men. This inequality is most evident in rural areas, where the prospect of employment is even lower and women are increasingly vulnerable due to a lack of access to services that encourage gender equality and support for women at-risk of domestic violence or other forms of abuse. Armenian organizations actively trying to address these issues are heavily dependent on donor or government funding to operate. This means that they cannot plan their work in the long term, and during some periods they may not have the means to continue supporting women in need. The Near East Foundation aims to change this.
WE EMPOWER COMMUNITIES BY EMPOWERING WOMEN. NEF is working in partnership with the Women’s Resource Development Center to strengthen the capacity of Armenian civil society organizations (CSOs) to provide services focused on improving gender equality and women’s economic empowerment in Armenia. With a focus on rural communities in, these efforts build onto NEF’s past work in Armenia that helped at-risk women start their own businesses or find employment to secure financial independence through trainings in business development, vocational training, employability readiness, and financial literacy.
NEF is supporting 10 organizations in Aragatsotn, Gegharkunik, Lori and Syunik Marzes to launch or develop their ability to fund programs that benefit at-risk women and support 600 at-risk Armenian women (particularly survivors or woman at-risk of gender-based violence) safely earn an income and become involved in social enterprises. Main activities include:
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A large craft area now consumes the family room in Asma’s home. The table is cluttered with colorful fabrics, threads, candles, and patterns and drawing for new designs. Asma carefully crafts her newest creation, while her children prepare for their next trip to the local bazaar. By all accounts, Asma’s life looks happily busy and secure—but it’s been a difficult road to get to this point.
Asma grew up in the outskirts of Amman, married young, and gave birth to five children in quick succession: three boys and two girls. Life as she knew it changed dramatically when her husband unexpectedly passed away and Asma found herself entirely responsible for providing for five children. They had accumulated little to no savings and with only having a 10th-grade education Asma felt at a loss as to how she could support her family. To meet immediate needs, Asma took out a loan but found that she was only qualified to receive 200 JOD – her rent alone was 175 JOD. If her family were to safely survive their deteriorating situation, Asma knew she needed to find a way to earn a steady income.
Asma always had a special talent for creating toys for her children out of old or broken items around the house so thought why not turn this skill into an income. Asma immediately started to test her abilities—challenging herself to repurpose old items not only into toys but also into new household trinkets and accessories.
While her products improved, Asma still lacked the knowledge and guidance on how to turn her creations into a profitable business. After seeking help from the Ministry of Development in Jordan, Asma was referred to one of NEF’s Siraj Centers near her home and qualified to attend a business development training there.
On the first day of the training, she decided to bring some of her merchandise so she could showcase her business idea and test her products. The other women at NEF’s Siraj Center were so impressed that she actually ended up selling everything she brought that day. Asma felt encouraged by their warmth and support and felt she had finally found a place that would help her turn her life around.
With help from the training, Asma developed a formal business plan and was awarded a cash grant to help her buy the supplies she needed to improve the quality and increase the number of her products. She described NEF’s training as “the starting point of her life.” She went on to explain that through the training she was able to learn how to correctly price her items (taking into account the cost of her raw materials, time, and transportation to and from the bazaars) and deal with customers. Of equal importance to her was the sense of community she gained by being connected to such an encouraging group of women. She said that they continue to keep in touch, provide each other with support, and learn from one another.
Now remarried, Asma shares how supportive her family is of her business. Her eldest shared his pride in what his mother has accomplished saying that they have seen how hard she has worked to provide for them all these years which is why they want to support her work as much as they can. All of Asma’s children join her at each bazaar or craft festival she attends, helping her deal with customers and set up her display. Another one of her sons commented on how much he has learned about running a business from watching Asma, saying when he is old enough, he would like to take business classes like his mother took.
In the future, Asma hopes to expand by opening her own shop. She described NEF as a “shining star” that presented itself to her when she was most in need of help and went on to say, “I now am truly happy because I am financially secure and self-reliant.”
Because of the gratitude, Asma feels for being able to turn her life around, she now makes time for her family to do voluntary work so they can give back and provide hope to families who are struggling.
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These days, Iman and her husband Ahmed’s days are off to a busy start with a business to run and a family to take care of. Shortly after rising Ahmed heads to their falafel stand to start preparations for the day. The kiosk is located within the informal tented settlement in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon where they have resided since fleeing their home in Ghouta, Syria. Iman gets to work on tending to the children and their home. Once the kids are settled she heads to the kiosk to meet Ahmed where they get to work chopping, grinding, and seasoning their homemade falafel and kabobs for the lunch rush. Iman makes the falafel, Ahmed grills the kabobs. Right now, life is manageable, peaceful, even hopeful.
This is a major departure from the chaos and uncertainty Iman and Ahmed felt after being forced to leave their home in Syria and arriving in Lebanon with their four children in 2012. Their fifth child was born in the camp after they resettled. They could find no work after they arrived. Ahmed was badly injured due to enduring shrapnel in his leg from a bomb and Iman had severe back problems that greatly disabled her mobility. During this time Iman shared that the other women in the camp banded together to help her family, explaining that they all take care of one another and it is very much like an extended family. Also, during this time, the family racked up around $1,500 in debt, a source of great stress for both Iman and Ahmed. Anything outside the bare minimum for the children was out of the question.
When Iman was approached with the opportunity to join NEF’s livelihoods support program, Ahmed was skeptical. As they often do, project staff invited him to sit in on the first business development training so he could see that it was legitimate and safe for his wife to attend. During the trainings Iman was having extreme problems with back and was considering discontinuing the classes but NEF’s Siraj Center made special accommodations for transport to the classes. Iman explains that the training was very enjoyable for her. Even with the pain she was experiencing, she insisted on going because she says, “It made me feel good to be there learning new things and relating to the other women.” She says it raised her spirits and was a relief from the difficulties she was facing at home at that time. She said also that she didn’t even know about the $850 project grant in the beginning – she just felt that the training and coaching was building her character and made her feel like a more complete person.
Since starting their falafel stand, Iman and Ahmed have substantially paid down their debt. Their 13-year-old daughter, Bayan, says before the business Ahmed was often angry and stressed because of his inability to work and provide for the family but since it has been up and running, the household is much more positive, everyone is less stressed. Iman says the kids were smiling for the first time in a long time and they had hope.
Beyond providing the household income, the kiosk has also helped them meet their neighbors. Iman explained that it feels great to interact with the people in their community. The kiosk has become a hub for more than just food but also for friendship, laughter and healing.