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Partnership to advance gender equality, women's leadership in Armenia

Victor Agadjanian, Georganne ScheinerGillis, Mary Margaret Fonow, Steve Batalden
April 01, 2013

Arizona State University is one of five universities in the United States selected to participate in the new Women’s Leadership Program announced March 21 by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Higher Education for Development (HED).

Each university will partner with a higher education institution in Armenia, Paraguay, Rwanda or South Sudan to promote gender equality and female empowerment. (Official press release here.)

With funding from USAID totaling approximately $8.75 million, these critical higher education partnerships will promote and develop curricula and opportunities for women in business, agriculture and education in the targeted countries, thus supporting key national and local development goals aimed at fostering the advancement of women and girls. 

In addition to Arizona State, the partnering U.S. universities are Indiana University, Michigan State University, the University of Florida, and the University of California Los Angeles.

ASU’s component of the program, funded by a $1.3 million award to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' Melikian Center: Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies, leverages a decade of partnerships between ASU and Yerevan State University (YSU) in Armenia.

The award will establish a Center for Gender and Leadership Studies at YSU that will develop new curriculum in women and gender studies, promote career advancement for women university graduates, conduct outreach activities, and advance public policy research on issues related to gender equality and women’s leadership.

Over the course of the three-year partnership, eight YSU scholars in areas related to women’s studies will be in-residence in ASU's women and gender studies program within the School of Social Transformation to participate in courses and develop syllabi and action-oriented research goals. The scholars also will be engaged in courses in the School of Public Affairs. The first cohort of scholars will arrive for ASU's Fall 2013 semester.

ASU’s partnership director is Victor Agadjanian, the E.E. Guillot International Distinguished Professor in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics. A speaker of Eastern Armenian, Agadjanian has done pioneering research on social change in the former Soviet Union – including rural Armenia – and serves on the graduate faculty for the gender studies doctoral program at ASU.

Mary Margaret Fonow, co-director, is a professor of women and gender studies, director of the School of Social Transformation, and an internationally recognized scholar on women’s leadership and labor issues.

Stephen Batalden, co-director, is the Melikian Center director and an authority on Eurasian cultural history, the newly independent states of Eurasia, and the religious and cultural history of modern Russia. 

Alexander Markarov, the YSU deputy vice rector and head of the YSU International Cooperation Office, has served as principal investigator on other ASU-YSU grant partnerships and will serve as YSU’s partnership director for this program. 

Batalden says that the partnership goals are very much inspired by the vision of former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for successful development, articulated in USAID’s Gender Equality and Female Empowerment policy released in March 2012.

“A hallmark of Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State was policies recognizing that long-term peace and prosperity around the world are possible only when women and men enjoy equal opportunity to reach their potential,” he notes. “Since being folded into the State Department, USAID’s new policies on gender equality and female empowerment emphasize building high-impact partnerships, harnessing innovation, and conducting rigorous program evaluation.

“In each of these regards, the partnership really is a made-for-ASU kind of effort, bringing a lot of innovation and cross-disciplinary expertise to the table," says Batalden.

In October, professors Agadjanian, Batalden and Fonow visited Yerevan State to conduct a needs assessment. The partnership leadership team convened at ASU in January, including Gohar Shahnazaryan, associate professor of sociology at YSU and founding director of the Women’s Resource Center of Armenia – the largest NGO serving young women in post-Soviet Armenia and an important community partner in the new grant project. Shahnazaryan was also recently named director of the new Center for Gender and Leadership Studies at YSU, which will celebrate its official launch on May 7.

“Gohar Shahnazaryan has done wonderful work to establish and grow this NGO, and we’re delighted she has taken on the center directorship at Yerevan State,” says Fonow. “They are doing important advocacy in Armenia and the region in educating, organizing and mobilizing people around gender issues and violence against women.

“Reducing gender-based inequities locally, nationally and internationally informs our scholarship and teaching in women and gender studies at ASU, and we appreciate that this partnership will also bring insights to our own faculty and students,” she notes.

More than a third of the partnership budget is allocated for institutional capacity building at YSU. With 1.1 million residents, the capital city of Yerevan is home to more than a third of Armenia’s population, but the partnership will also support efforts to expand women’s access to higher education and leadership mentoring in rural communities.

Agadjanian says Armenia is a good social laboratory in the region for developing innovative initiatives to benefit women economically, politically and socially.

“Though Armenia is a fairly traditional, patriarchal society, it is open enough to absorb new ideas, to try new social experiments, if you will," Agadjanian says.

“Like many post-Soviet societies, Armenia once saw quite a rapid advancement of women under the Soviet system, as women joined the labor force and pursued higher education on a large scale over a few decades," he says. "After Armenia's independence in 1991, women's participation in household and community decision-making has also been fueled by necessity. With many Armenian men having to migrate to Russia for employment, women are taking responsibility for leadership in their homes and communities.

“But these changes haven’t solved the fundamental problems of gender inequality,” he explains. “And, in many ways, they have only added a new burden to women as they’ve assumed additional roles beyond the household duties without conditions being created to balance the pursuit of family and professional goals.

“Our collaborators want to build on and complement this early impetus with new models of empowerment for women that are compatible with local traditions and culture – integrating what’s positive and constructive (Armenia’s constitution, for example, includes specific protections for family, motherhood and children) and taking that respect for family and motherhood to a new level, by creating an environment where women have a real choice about their lives and the same opportunities and rewards that men enjoy.

“Of course, you can’t really change women’s lives unless you change men,” Agadjanian emphasizes. “So this partnership will also be about working with men – raising awareness about gender equality and getting leaders in education and NGOs on board intellectually, psychologically and culturally about the benefits of working on women’s leadership and advancement issues.

“In the end,” says Agadjanian, “our comparative advantage as a university-based initiative is our ability to help build research-driven outreach and advocacy. The YSU faculty who come to ASU for training will gain the understanding and practical skills to go identify, study, analyze and produce recommendations and interventions based on robust research to address concrete problems facing their society.”