Liberating themselves and their sisters: A profile of the Armenian International Women’s Association

By Sareen Habeshian

Domestic violence is a commonplace issue in Armenia. Yet, it is rarely discussed due to the culture of shame that surrounds the subject in the patriarchal society.

The Armenian International Women’s Association, operating from the United States, works to combat such problems throughout Armenia. Founded with the intent of raising awareness about the situation of women living in Armenia, the organization is made up of women, governed by women and focused on the interests and needs of women.

Nearly 30 years since its inception, the Armenian International Women’s Association now sees itself as a global network with the mission of promoting and enriching the social, economic and personal advancement of Armenian women around the world. They do so through educational and community activities that bring Armenian women together and promote gender equity. It is an effort on behalf of Armenian-American women to liberate both themselves and their sisters in Armenia from centuries of a dominating patriarchy.

The organization, based out of Boston, is a nonprofit, funded entirely by donations. It has an affiliate structure that supports chapters wherever there is a willing leader. With over 500 members, the group has affiliate centers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New England and New Jersey.

Christina Soussa, president of the San Francisco chapter, focuses on growing the organization through projects, membership and fundraising.

“From a social impact perspective, have several active projects. A current high priority initiative is on domestic violence awareness in Armenia,” Soussa said.

There is no comprehensive domestic violence law in Armenia that states that domestic abuse is illegal, she explained. There is also no anonymity in reporting violence.

“In the absence of such a law, you can’t hold people accountable. There is no mechanism in which a consequence can be set,” Soussa said.

The Armenian International Women’s Association provided the funds to start the Women’s Support Center in Armenia and remains a partner. The organization helps to provide resources and supplies for two safe houses run by the support center, which are open to families who leave domestic violence conditions. They also help with relocating these families and helping them to becoming financially independent.

The association is careful to be sensitive to what the women running the support center in Armenian need and want, Jennifer Phillips, executive director of the Armenian International Women’s Association, explained.

“We want to support women who are already there doing work. They’re doing amazing things. They’re working on legislation to de-legitimize domestic violence and they promote talking about this serious issue in the country where there is a lot of shame around it,” she said. “We connect people who are already doing good things instead of replicating it.”

The support center also has a hotline for victims and for reporting domestic abuse crimes.

“There are some really interesting social things happening, where now, people are actually calling the hotline- people who otherwise wouldn’t,” Soussa said. “There’s a definite shift happening there.”

The group works with the United Nations to help drive policy toward creating domestic violence law. They are also active in UN affiliates such as the Commission on the Status of Women and the United Nations Development Fund for Women.

As one of its earliest initiatives, the Armenian International Women’s Association supports entrepreneurship programs in Armenia. Since 2002, they offer women month-long classes to start or grow small business by providing them skills, mentors and tools to develop a business plan.

In addition to its contributions to global initiatives, Soussa said the San Francisco chapter holds local events, including panel discussions, networking mixers, scholarships for local leadership and internships. They aim to put on events that appeal to both men and women, and that open a dialogue that is relevant to non-Armenians. They do so through several events including workshops on a wide array of topics, including career development, mentorship, finances, communication and parenting, technology and lifestyle.

“It is important to us that our events, content and engagements are relevant, meaningful and enriching to all who participate.  As a result, we are able to have thought-provoking discussions and make meaningful impact,” she explained. “We ask provocative questions and work hands-on with our initiatives.”

Although the organization is for Armenian women across the globe, events are open to people of all backgrounds, ages and genders. Uniquely, the group is not affiliated with any political or religious groups. The three women who founded the organization sought to be independent not only from men, but also from any sort of traditional pull.

“It’s in the DNA of the Armenian International Women’s Association to be inclusive and supportive of each other and leave everything else at the door,” Phillips said.

For many young women, their first interaction with the Armenian International Women’s Association is through the scholarships that they offer. The organization has presented nearly $70,000 in scholarships to 32 Armenian female students studying around the world in the 2017-2018 academic year alone.

“This organization is about helping women achieve their goals,” Phillips said. “I think in some ways Armenian women (in the U.S.) can connect with each other but there’s also an understanding of what’s happening with Armenian women in other places. So what do they need and how can we help them? We want to improve things for the long-term.”

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About the Author:

profilepicSareen Habeshian, 22, was born and raised in Los Angeles. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 2017, where she majored in Media Studies and Armenian Language and Literature, with a minor in Middle Eastern Studies. There she was the President of the Armenian Students’ Association and a reporter for The Daily Californian. She is now a multimedia journalist completing her Master of Science degree in Journalism at USC Annenberg.

About AIWA-SF:

The Armenian International Women’s Association is a dynamic global 501(c)3 dedicated to empowerment, education and enrichment. Through many projects and initiatives,  AIWA is dedicated to enriching social, economic and personal advancement of Armenian women worldwide through educational and other community activities that promote gender equity, and emphasize our Armenian cultural heritage.   To learn more about AIWA, please visit http://www.aiwainternational.org.

To get involved with the AIWA-SF affiliate, please visit http://www.aiwasanfrancisco.com or send an email to aiwasanfrancisco@gmail.com. We are grateful for all donations. To help us promote progress, contributions can be mailed to: AIWA-SF 15559 Union Ave #227 Los Gatos CA 95032

 

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