The Invisible Veil

AGBU launches a bold initiative to remove lingering obstacles to gender equality in Armenia

Over the centuries, the innate power of women has been hidden from full view in society due to a stubborn and pervasive reality: gender bias.  

While Armenia’s women are far more visible and engaged in society than their counterparts across its borders in Iran and Turkey, obvious and pernicious issues persist, including the disproportionate lack of representation in government and economy, selective gender births, domestic violence, and psycho-social pressures within intergenerational households, often with the complicity of elder matriarchs.

“Ever since AGBU established a physical presence in Armenia and began engaging with all levels and sectors of society, we saw a stark contrast between what women in the developed world consider a ‘women’s issue’ and what Armenia’s women think,” says Executive Director of AGBU Armenia, Talar Kazanjian, a repat who was raised and educated in Canada and Europe.

It’s going to take an “all in” approach to lift the invisible veil that has obscured female potential in Armenia—resulting in economic and social exclusion.

Ani Manoukian

AGBU Central Board Member

“These women are struggling not only with economic hardships but also deep-seated concerns relating to self-image, self-confidence and how they perpetuate self-stereotyping, passing on outworn notions of acceptable female behavior to their daughters,” Kazanjian explains. “Even though the majority of women in Armenia have completed high school and many have attended or completed university, they have not caught up with the global women’s empowerment movement that is now full-speed ahead in the West,” she adds. 

Back in New York, Arda Haratunian and Ani Manoukian, both AGBU Central Board members and co-chairs of the AGBU Women’s Empowerment Initia-tive, established in 2018, speak to the urgency of the situation. “When you weigh the fact that Armenia’s women account for over half the country’s population against their under-representation in industry, commerce and governance, you are, in effect, asking yet another generation to miss out on all the potential that is now reaching a tipping point in the New Armenia,” says Haratunian, who also poses the question, “How can we still be talking about painful and sensitive issues like selective gender births while future-forward themes like innovation and globalization are the new hallmarks of the national image? Armenia’s women are long overdue for a voice and a presence in their country’s civic and economic life.”

Building on a Legacy

According to Manoukian, AGBU is one of the “least likely organizations to just sit back and leave Armenia’s women behind.” She cites how the AGBU founders, who were arguably men ahead of their time, took strides to elevate Armenian women in education, in trades, and in society, after first enlisting them to organize successful multi-national relief and rescue operations for female genocide survivors, many who had been abducted into Turkish homes. 

“Over the decades, women were put in positions of leadership, serving on boards, committees and chapters, not to mention the election of our fifth president, Louise Manoogian Simone, who led during the challenging years of Armenia’s independence,” she said, adding that 40% of current chapter chairs are women and, looking solely at AGBU Young Professionals, the percentage increases to 55%. 

Launching AGBU EmpowerHer 

Manoukian asserts these reasons and more for going “big and bold” with an all-encompassing, global initiative called AGBU EmpowerHer. Announced at the inaugural Women Shaping the World Conference held last March in New York City, Manoukian describes it as “an all-out effort that enlists everyone, from government to grass-roots, public and private stakeholders, donors, mentors and experts. It’s going to take an ‘all-in’ approach to lift the invisible veil that has obscured female potential in Armenia—resulting in economic and social exclusion,” she emphasized.

When you change the life of a woman, it will change their communities, the organizations they work in, and the nation they create.

Arda Haratunian

AGBU Central Board Member

Global Acts of Solidarity

When asked how Armenian women outside the country could help their sisters in Armenia, Manoukian and Haratunian were brimming with ideas. “If someone’s in a position to come to Armenia to mentor a budding entre-preneur or assist in writing a business proposal, AGBU is the place to start,” said Manoukian. “Or, become an English language coach remotely or purchase products and services made by Armenia’s women…even organize a fundraising event to support the national rollout of the EmpowerHer model. We welcome emails with inquiries and ideas. Just go to” 

Haratunian agreed. “When you change the life of a woman, it will change their communities, the organizations they work in, and the nation they create. We want to empower women to EmpowerHer.” 

How AGBU EmpowerHer Transforms Mindsets and Skill Sets

The EmpowerHer model was designed by a dedicated team at AGBU Armenia in collaboration with the AGBU Woman’s Empowerment Initiative, based in New York. It combines both educational and psycho-social components that work to change perceptions and teach skills essential to gaining financial and social independence. To that end, AGBU is building on some of its successful programs, launching a number of new ones, and entering into strategic partnerships with established organizations to provide for the diverse needs of women and girls. 

AGBU Hye Geen Centers: Over 30 years ago, a group of women in Southern California were inspired by Sona Yacoubian’s idea to promote Armenian women in family and society. Since then, Hye Geen has opened five centers for pregnant women across Armenia’s provinces. Beneficiaries are encouraged to address sensitive issues, such as the perceived value of females in society and dynamics in intergenerational households. The centers also offer pre-marriage counseling to help avoid abusive marriages as well as arrange regular visits by psychologists, physicians, nutritionists, legal advisors and exercise instructors—all to support the overall well being of expectant and new mothers. To date, some 4,000 healthy births and 16,000 lives have been touched by Hye Geen’s efforts, along with its capacity to change values and behaviors at the earliest stages of parental modeling.

Schools and Afterschools: Undoubtedly, gender bias is reinforced throughout the school years, based on how boys and girls are treated by teachers and administrators and what roles they are assigned in classroom and extracurricular activities. AGBU is working with Armenia’s public schools and local afterschool programs to guide the curriculum in the direction of gender equality. 

Workplace Fundamentals: To prepare women for sustainable employment, the AGBU EmpowerHer educational experience begins with a pre-requisite online course covering basic office skills including Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and email writing, with an overlay of public speaking, critical thinking, self-confidence and business ethics. Upon completion, the participant can determine which career track to pursue: Coding and IT; Women Entrepreneurs (W.E.) or Community Changemakers—all programs of AGBU. 

Coding and IT: Many women are eager to learn coding to get in on the ground floor of the IT industry, seeing its potential for upward mobility. AGBU works with private tech companies to create internships as the first step to a position as a coder. Participants must pass a basic evaluation text for English, math and critical thinking as well as an in-person interview. 

Women Entrepreneurs: Those with an idea for a micro-enterprise or home business opt for the AGBU Women’s Empowerment (W.E.) program. Now in its third year of engagement, the course covers business disciplines, a pitch battle for mini-grants, and a year-long cycle of support. 

Community Changemakers: Natural born leaders are encouraged to take this track to lead a community service project that benefits their community, such as a public garden or a dental hygiene campaign, for example. This track emphasizes collaboration, partnering with external stakeholders and communicating effectively with the public—all qualities necessary for playing key roles in governance and community affairs. 

Women’s Support Center: This longstanding refuge for victims of domestic violence and abuse in Armenia is helping women take those first critical steps away from co-dependence that often keep them tethered to destructive relationships that impact not only themselves but also their children. Through the Center’s new WSC-AGBU Stepping Out program, those who regain their self-confidence and dignity are encouraged to pursue the EmpowerHer Workplace Fundamentals course, specialty trainings or other options that keep them moving forward in life. 

Originally published in the May 2020 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. end character

About the AGBU Magazine

AGBU Magazine is one of the most widely circulated English language Armenian magazines in the world, available in print and digital format. Each issue delivers insights and perspective on subjects and themes relating to the Armenian world, accompanied by original photography, exclusive high-profile interviews, fun facts and more.