BY NANORE BARSOUMIAN
From The Armenian Weekly
NEW YORK–The status of rural women worldwide was the focus of the 56thsession of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW56), held in the United Nations headquarters in New York from Feb. 27 to March 9. The two-week event brought together members of governments and civil society, rural women, and the media to analyze and report on the progress of initiatives laid out in the Beijing Platform for Action, which aims for gender equality. During this year’s session, the Commission focused on the empowerment of rural women, their role in development, and ending poverty and hunger. On March 2, as part of these high-level panels, the Permanent Mission of Armenia to the UN, together with Women’s World Banking, CSW NGO Forum, and the Armenian Relief Society (ARS), held a panel discussion titled “From Empowerment to Sustainability: Financing, Leadership, and Health for Rural Women.”
The panelists included Amb. Garen Nazarian, the permanent representative of Armenia to the UN and a former chair of CSW; Mary Ellen Iskenderian, the president and CEO of Women’s World Banking (WWB); Ambassador Meryl Frank, a former U.S. representative to CSW, and current president and CEO of Makeda Global; and Stephanie Killian, the chair of the ARS UN Committee and director of global resources for J-Intersect. The event was moderated by Soon-Young Yoon, the chair of CSW NGO Forum.
Below is a summary of what each panelist discussed.
Nazarian: ‘Present-day economic challenges as opportunities to strengthen gender-responsive policies’
Nazarian began by saying that gender equality and the empowerment of women are important aims both in themselves but also as a means for achieving sustainable development goals.
“There is increasing recognition of the implications of a financial and economic crisis on gender equality and development,” he said. “Women’s economic empowerment entails increasing women’s access to economic and financial resources in a broad sense, including resources generated at the national level with budgets, trade, and development assistance, productive resources such as land and property, and social protection, employment, as well as financial services such as savings, credit, remittances, and transfers,” he said, adding the latter was particularly important for Armenia since two-thirds of its population lives outside, and comprises the diaspora.
“Without access to economic resources a woman simply lacks protection, and in particular rural women, who continue to be absent from key decision-making processes shaping the allocation of economic and financial resources and opportunities,” he said.
To promote the empowerment of rural women, gender-sensitive labor market regulations need to be in place, he argued, in addition to the promotion of concepts and regulations that empower women to refuse unpaid care-work. Land reform laws and land partitioning projects are also critical, he noted.
“In some countries, including Armenia, the global financial crisis has resulted in a decline in resources available for promoting gender equality, and has caused a shift in priorities, unfortunately, resulting in the diversion of funds from projects aimed at gender equality promotion in rural areas. I think we should see the present-day economic challenges as opportunities to strengthen gender-responsive policies on the national level,” Nazarian said. “Because not addressing gender issues will only exacerbate the existing crises.”
Frank: ‘Empowering women for local politics’
Passionate about empowering women, Frank described her involvement throughout the world—with women parliament members in Afghanistan, Jordan, and Malawi; with basket weavers and widows in Kenya; and with women interested in running for office in Morocco.
“I don’t travel as an American ambassador. I travel as a woman who’s had experiences all over the world, and I want to share those experiences with other women,” she said.
Frank was asked to keynote the first national conference on women and politics in Armenia in 2011.
“What I found in Armenia was odd. Women are very well educated in Armenia. Women are very capable and confident in Armenia. But what was different about Armenia was they had no representation in politics. What I found in Armenia was that these women were smart and capable and ready to hold office… There really was no real good reason why Armenia had a problem with [having women in office],” she said.
Frank then listed the following countries: Cambodia, Tunisia, Tajikistan, Albania, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Uruguay, Dagestan, Panama, and Burundi. She asked the audience whether they believed Armenia ranked better, worse, or the same as the countries listed.
“They all rank better internationally than Armenia,” she said. “Armenia ranks 108 in political participation, out of 135 countries studied by the World Economic Forum. This doesn’t make sense. Those of you who know Armenia…let me ask you: Does this make sense?”
“No,” responded members of the audience.
“You shouldn’t worry,” continued Frank, “because Armenia ranks just after Chad, and does better than Kuwait, Fiji, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman.”
She then compared the percentage of women parliamentarians in Afghanistan and Armenia, at 26 percent and 9 percent, respectively. She added that a group in Armenia was pushing for a 30 percent women-in-parliament quota. Fortunately, she said, the quota is going to be 20 percent in Armenia. Although welcoming that improvement, she said similar efforts needed to be underway on the local level to secure the appointment or election of women to local offices. “I believe there are 13 mayors out of 588 municipalities that are women. This is a problem because this is the breeding ground for women. This is where women learn to govern,” she said.
Frank, who has trained women around the world to legislate and govern, explained the importance of a support structure for women politicians in local offices, which ensures they are confident, experienced, and effective once they reach the national level.
“When you look at this issue—the issue of women as members of parliament, the issue of women governing—it’s very important not to make the argument that this is about equality… justice or…human rights, because in fact this is about having a better government,” she said. She then cited studies that show how boards function more efficiently when women hold seats. “Women balance. Women tend to be more risk-averse than men. So the idea here is that you have a balance of perspectives on boards,” she said.
Armenia is not as productive as it should be, and this is directly related to the absence of female voices in government. Armenia has more educated women than educated men, Frank explained, adding, “Even in fields [such as] education, where 90 percent of the teachers are women—this is true everywhere by the way—the minister is a man, and the high-level positions are filled by men.”
Frank’s organization trains women, sharpens their governing skills, and provides the government with a list of qualified women, “so they can no longer say, ‘There are no qualified women.’”
“My recommendations are that Armenia takes advantage of this tremendous resource, that they look at women for local elected office, that they look at women for national elected office, for local appointed office, and national appointed office,” concluded Frank.
Killian: ‘Access to health services a key component of fight against poverty’
Killian began by describing the work the ARS has done over the past century. “From the beginning our creation as a humanitarian organization captured the nature of the Armenian woman to care and nurture, and her uncanny ability to organize and plan. These qualities, however, are present in all women of the world, especially rural women and those stuck in poverty, who must run their households, oftentimes creating something out of nothing.”
In 2010, she said, as the ARS evaluated its 100 years of service, it resolved to grow from a global charity to a sustainable philanthropic organization.
She then explained the importance of health and wellbeing of women as the foundation for independence and development. “Rural women especially face great challenges due to location and mobility that affect their basic human rights including access to food, water, and sanitation. Rural populations are less educated, have less access to healthcare, exhibit more chronic diseases, and are more likely to be excluded from financial services,” she said, adding that as a caregiver and income generator, the challenges of rural women are even higher, and medical expenses can place a tremendous strain on their families.
“Access to health services and health protection is a key component of the fight against poverty, as good health is a major driver of economic development and a necessity to alleviate poverty,” she said.
Killian then talked about the services provided by the ARS Mother and Child Clinic in the Armenian village of Akhourian, founded in 1997; the Birthing Center established there in 2005; and the dental clinic built in 2008.
She then briefly spoke about microfinancing services. “Creating a development equation of microfinance—including microcredit, savings, and insurance—with investing in healthcare for all women living in poverty will produce results that will positively impact all areas of a woman’s life, her family, and her community. Financial inclusion and healthcare are complementary and must be regarded in a comprehensive solution to poverty. In some cases, delivering services in tandem, like health education with credit service, increases the impact of both.”
Iskenderian: ‘Financial empowerment’
Iskenderian spoke about Women’s World Banking and its 39 partner institutions that provide financial services to women in 27 developing countries.
Serving 26 million clients worldwide, 80 percent of whom are women, WWB is focused on assisting financial institutions that target rural women clients with services geared specifically to that gender.
Iskenderian talked about the various services WWB provides, from credit services to savings, insurance, and pension products. She said women interact more with their financial institutions than men do. They also value time and convenience much more than men do.
“The financial institution that thinks about the financial products and services with [women’s] life cycle needs—birth, birth of children, building a house, getting married, the marriage of children, old age, and unfortunately death—really are going to be much better aligned with the ways that their female clients approach the financial sector,” she said.
Confidentiality is an “absolute essentiality” for women, said Iskenderian. “Women want to be able to save in a safe, secure place and they view banks as being a place to do that. But they need to know that their husbands, their family members, their neighbors, don’t know that they’re saving and how much they’re saving,” she said.
Financial education is the responsibility of the financial institution, she said, as many rural women are illiterate. Institutions have to bear in mind that rural women are less likely to have access to property title or be able to pledge property as a guarantee in applying for loan services that require collateral or documentation, she said.
Iskenderian also spoke about the power of marketing, and how financial institutions could project an image of empowerment and ambition that would resonate with women from different cultures.
Women often minimize or fail to recognize their own contributions to the family income, she said. Referring to WWB’s market research in Paraguay, she explained how husbands there would often farm, while their wives tended to the chicken, sold the eggs in the market, and made the salsa to sell. “They had all these ongoing products that were earning money, but when we talked to them, they’d say… ‘I am just a housewife, and I make no contribution financially to the household.’” What the team found, however, was that 70 percent of the incoming cash was coming from the women’s eggs, chickens, and salsa.
WWB works with financial institutions “to look beyond women’s self-description of what she’s contributing to the household,” Iskenderian said, adding that “the financial institution that we’re working with is so excited, they think they discovered this truly hidden market, and they’ll have a differentiated advantage over other financial institutions.”
Iskenderian also spoke about a health micro-insurance product that WWB introduced in Jordan, where so many women were taking time away from their businesses to care for a sick family member (the number one reason worldwide, according to Iskenderian, that microenterprises were being liquidated or de-capitalized). The policy charges “a fraction” of what the women were saving every month for emergency needs, and in return earns them a per diem up to 30 days to spend away from their businesses, whether to care for a relative, or for their own sick time. Since April 2010, Caretaker, the name of the product, sold 52,000 and received 2,100 claims.
In his closing remarks, Nazarian thanked the panelists and the participants. “As a government we are open to these kinds of sincere endeavors, discussions, and sometimes even criticism. That makes my country different from those that Frank mentioned, and places Armenia high on the list in the context of human rights and fundamental freedoms,” he said. “We will continue the practice of holding these kinds of conferences and events in Armenia and outside Armenia to improve public awareness and also provoke more discussions within the society,” he added.
ARS members and representatives of various NGOs from across the world attended the event. Following the discussion, some participants and panelists met at the Armenian Mission to the UN offices, where a reception was held. Guests included Henriette Ahrens, the UNICEF representative to Armenia.