BY MARIA TITIZIAN
I have had to bear witness to poverty in my homeland more times than I care to remember. I have felt the bitter cold of winter on my back each time I have gone to the village of Vedi for Christmas to visit distant relatives who live there. The same occurred again this year when I made my annual trek to see this family of six who live in conditions that should bring shame on all of us.
Of the four children between the ages of 18 and five, the eldest is physically and mentally impaired. The family does not have running water for cooking or washing or cleaning, nor do they have natural gas to heat their tiny dilapidated home. The mother has critical health issues, including hypertension, and the father does the best he can with the resources God has given him. They receive only a fraction of the medical care they so desperately need because of limited services available in their village and because of limited funds.
The daughter is set to attend university next year, but her hopes of pursuing a higher education are quickly fading as living costs in Yerevan skyrocket and tuition fees are more than what her parents earn in one year. The mother dreams of one day having a kitchen and a real toilet in the house. The father wonders how he will be able to marry his daughters off when they have an older brother who is physically and mentally challenged. After all, no one wants a new bride who might be carrying defective genes that could potentially compromise the process of procreation. The only person who is oblivious to this family’s plight is their little five-year-old boy who still believes in Santa Claus and dreams of brand new toys. But even this slight little human being has begun to understand that not all good things come to those who deserve them.
This is but one family; there are tens of thousands of families like them whose circumstances are similar or far worse. And the future doesn’t hold much promise for them.
According to the Republic of Armenia’s National Statistical Service (NSS), 34.1 percent of our population today lives in poverty. For the first time since1998, we are witnessing an increase in the country’s poverty rates. According to the recently published NSS report, every fifth person in Armenia is considered to be in poverty. What is more alarming is that 117,000 people in our homeland live on 17,486 AMD a month (approximately $48). Forty-eight dollars a month for food, heat, water, gas, clothes, transportation, and medical services. . . . This group is considered to be in extreme poverty.
The NSS measures a family’s standard of living by their consumption. What can a family consume on $48 a month?
Imagine the entire population of Inglewood, California, or Boulder, Colorado, surviving on $48 a month. Now imagine yourself living on $48 a month — not in Inglewood or Boulder — but in a village or town in Armenia when one kilogram of locally produced cheese costs about $8, and a pound of ground beef hovers at about $6, thanks to rising inflation.
It gets worse. The same report states that approximately 47.2 percent of the population of Shirak lives in poverty. Almost half of the entire population living in poverty…
As a result of the global economic downturn, in the course of one calendar year, 2008-2009, 214,000 people fell into poverty in our homeland. Of those children living in extreme poverty, 44.2 percent of them live in households where there is no refrigerator.
This is what happens when the state’s social and economic policies are flawed; when there is an unequal distribution of wealth and when the concept of equal opportunities and market competitiveness is thrown out the window as more and more power and wealth is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. When corruption at every level decimates even the best of social and economic policies by ensuring funds are redirected into the pockets of those with power and endless greed.
The day I read the NSS report on poverty, I was invited to a friend’s home for drinks with some local women I had never met. They all live in the same apartment complex, one of the most beautiful buildings in Yerevan, in an affluent neighborhood right in the heart of the city. Meeting new people and forging relationships is part of our experience of living in Armenia. When I arrived, what struck me most was how well these women were dressed for a casual evening where all they needed to do was take an elevator ride to reach their destination.
I don’t know much about designer clothes or jewelry or handbags, but I can read, and from the Hermes bags to the Bvlgari jewelry to the meticulously crafted shoes and clothes these women were wearing, I was speechless—a rare occurrence in my life. Hadn’t I just read that morning that 34.1 percent of our population lives in poverty in Armenia?
As the evening wore on, discussion ranged from the status of women in society and families (briefly) to the new Tommy Hilfiger store that had opened on Northern Avenue (extensively). We spoke about our children, shopping in Dubai, and where to buy the best furniture in Yerevan. Surreal is not a word to describe that particular day in my life.
The extremes that make up the mosaic of our lives are exhausting and frustrating. While I don’t have the right to begrudge these women the obvious prosperity and wealth that surrounds them, I do have the right to wonder if they wonder about the NSS statistics. I would bet my life that the overwhelming majority of this class does not. While they may have, at one point in their lives, been faced with poverty, now that they have acquired this new found wealth, they have quickly forgotten where they have come from and now spend their days debating whether to buy a Hermes bag or a Chanel on their annual trips to Dubai, Moscow, or Paris.
The battle of poverty and prosperity endures in our country. And while poverty rates are exceeding all of our expectations, we must all learn the values of what good citizenship means. It means extending a hand to the helpless; it means creating programs that will help elevate the lives of children who live in unbearable conditions; it means, at the very least acknowledging that hardship and poverty surrounds us at every turn and it means taking a stand and doing something about it.
As we prepare to celebrate the 20th anniversary of an independent Armenian republic this year, I hope that we can finally begin to understand the value and fragility of statehood. While the total eradication of poverty in Armenia may be unrealistic, we must strive to create conditions where those less fortunate than us can find the means of pulling themselves out a vicious cycle that has imprisoned them. Each of us will have to find our own way to help create those conditions: some will do so by repatriating, some by investing in businesses that work within the law, some by contributing to one of the organizations that do good work, others by advocating for less corruption and wiser government programs.
While prosperity is certainly not an evil, it is unforgivable when only a handful of families benefit from the limited resources of this small plot of land we call the motherland.
Maria Titizian in a Vice-President of the Socialist International and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s representative in the Socialist International Women. She is also the director of the Yerevan-based Hrayr Maroukhian Foundation.