NEW YORK — It is unfortunately all too obvious that in spite of First and Second Wave feminism and some real progress in women’s rights, that we still have a long way to go. Twenty years after the United Nation’s ambitious Resolution 1325 called on governments to help achieve gender equality and put an end to physical and verbal violence against women, the latter remain the overlooked victims in times of war and humanitarian emergencies. Women often have no recourse against verbal and physical abuse and outright rape. Many must also figure out how to support families and raise children when the men in their families have been killed or severely handicapped in combat.
In order to address these issues in light of the 44-Day War, the Armenian Mission to the United Nations recently organized a round table titled “Between War and Pandemic: Voices from the Field.” The event was held remotely due to COVID-19 as part of the UN Commission on the Status Women’s 65th session, in coordination with the work of the UN Women’s Status Committee. The panelists delivered thoughtful presentations aimed at informing the public but also finding solutions to existing issues. Maria Victoria Cabrera-Balleza, the founder and chief executive officer of the Global Network of Woman Peacebuilders (GNWP) spoke first and expounded on the importance of sending relief packages that GNWP send to women in conflict areas around the world that include reproductive products as well as other forms of aid. She decried the exponential increase during COVID-19 of gender-based domestic violence. Another key element in her organization’s work is simply information dissemination so that people are made aware of the problems at hand and so that women know where to go for help. The GNWP is notably implementing peace resolution efforts and aid to Armenia in Tavush and other parts of the country. This type of action plan is being made available regionally, nationally and internationally thanks in part to a comprehensive database that is being put together by the organization. She also hinted that Armenians should stay tuned as the organization is planning new soon-to-made-public relief activities in Armenia.
Cabrera-Balleza was followed by Lucy Snell, a remarkable investigative journalist and Edward R. Murrow Award recipient. Snell has been on the front lines of numerous war zones, including in Syria. It was shocking to hear her say that the shelling by Azerbaijani and Turkish forces of Nagorno Karabakh was more intense and destructive than any she had seen because it happened so quickly after the outbreak of the war and due as well to its sheer intensity. The fact that the Turkish-Azerbaijani forces also shelled civilian areas and hospitals meant that the women who were left behind to take care of their families while the husbands were on the battlefield had to risk their lives on a regular basis in order to get food or household supplies. Like several of the other speakers Snell emphasized the bravery of these women and the toll that the war has taken on them psychologically and physically.
Civilnet journalist Lika Zakaryan offered invaluable first-hand experience from the front lines of the 44-Day War. She emphasized that the shelling of Stepanakert was so intense that she and her fellow Artsakhtsis felt that any moment in time could be their last one alive. As a result COVID-19 was not even a factor in their consciousness as they all huddled together in bomb shelters. Many caught the illness but could not give it a second thought amidst the immediacy of a greater threat to their lives — drones and bombs exploding above.
The panel was rounded out by Shant Shekherdimian, Professor of Surgery at UCLA and by political scientist Karena Avedissian.
Shekherdimian volunteered his services and had to literally piece together bodies on a daily basis. But even he emphasized that the true heroes of the war were the women of Artsakh. Left behind they helped him in surgery and themselves performed operations 24/7. He also spoke about the bravery of pregnant women who had to be evacuated from the hospital which was being shelled and transported to Armenia itself. Finally, he emphasized the mental and physical consequences of the war on women who still carry scars from the previous war with Azerbaijan. This was a difficult segment to listen to, so raw were the facts that he related.