From left, Svetlana Hovhannisyan, Lilit Haroyan, Arusyak Avetisyan, Shushanik Danielyan, Lilit Hajatyan and Meri Harutyunyan (photo Aram Arkun)

Five Women in Armenian Municipal Government Visit Massachusetts Counterparts through CYSCA

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BELMONT, Mass. — Five women in municipal government in Armenia spoke about their towns and jobs, and their working visit to the US, at a panel discussion organized by the Cambridge-Yerevan Sister City Association (CYSCA) and cosponsored by the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) as part of the latter’s Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Lecture Series on Contemporary Armenian Issues. The event took place at the NAASR headquarters in Belmont during the evening of October 19.

The five women were in Massachusetts from October 13 to 21 as part of a CYSCA program which is funded by the Congressional Office for International Leadership (COIL, formerly known as the Open World Leadership Center), a legislative branch agency that supports the US Congress. They spent one week in Washington D.C. prior to their Massachusetts visit, and they were accompanied by a facilitator from the US embassy in Yerevan, a political assistant there named Lilit Antonyan, as well as interpreter Svetlana Hovhannisyan.

Silva Sedrakian (photo Aram Arkun)

NAASR Executive Director Silva Sedrakian welcomed the audience, while Roxanne Etmekjian, NAASR board member and president of CYSCA, provided some background about the CYSCA program. Jonathan Hecht, a CYSCA board member and former Massachusetts State Representative and Watertown City Councilor, served as moderator and pointed out this was the fourth day of the group’s visit.

Roxanne Etmekjian (photo David Elizian)

Each day, Hecht said, was chockfull of meetings. Monday the group met with Cambridge’s mayor and members of the city council and city government, discussing issues such as economic development, transportation and clean energy. They met with nonprofit organizations working on domestic violence issues and groups focusing on women’s rights and empowerment, in order to see how these issues are dealt with on the city level in Cambridge.

Jonathan Hecht (photo Aram Arkun)

Tuesday they moved to the state level and met state legislators representing Cambridge, Watertown and other municipalities at the State House, as well as with the Massachusetts Caucus of Women Legislators, the League of Women Voters, and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional organization of the Boston area dealing with infrastructure, emergency response, immigrants and other important issues.

Wednesday they went to central Massachusetts, to the town of Lancaster and the city of Fitchburg, where they met with local officials, and toured Fitchburg’s senior center and community television station, as well as visited Hollis Hills Farm. On Thursday, they visited the Perkins School for the Blind, Sheriff Peter Koutoujian at the Middlesex House of Correction, and the staff of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. They had one more full day of meetings to look forward to on Friday, Hecht observed.

Lilit Antonyan (photo Aram Arkun)

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Etmekjian later reported that on Friday, the group met with Senior Researcher Noorya Hayat at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life: center for information and research on civic learning and engagement (CIRCLE). They also met with Emily Haber, CEO and president, and Yaritza DeJesus, Director of Economic Development, of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations (MACDC). On Saturday morning, they had a tour and meeting at the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Boston Nature Center and learned about their various programs, including an on-site pre-school.

PowerPoint Presentations

After Hecht’s general introduction, the panelists narrated a PowerPoint slideshow on Yerevan and their various towns of origin, presenting the highlights and touristic attractions of each area. Meri Harutyunyan, Deputy Head of Development and Investment Programs Department for Yerevan Municipality, was the first speaker. Her work focuses on sustainable development, environmental education, and encouraging citizen involvement in the capital city’s decision-making process.

Lilit Hajatyan, a native of Artik, in Shirak Province, which is a 30-minute drive from Gyumri, noted that in the 19th century many Armenians immigrated there from Kars and Karin/Erzurum. Artik is famous for its pink tufa, which is excavated there. Hajatyan is the youngest of the 27 members of the Artik Consolidated Community Council. Municipal council members in Armenia work part-time without pay. She is also the founder and director of an environmental NGO.

Arusyak Avetisyan is the second youngest of the 27 member Vardenis Consolidated Community Council, in Gegharkunik Province. Gegharkunik is the biggest province in Armenia, largely because it contains Lake Sevan in its territory. With 36 settlements, it is near Armenia’s border, and agriculture and animal husbandry are the main sources of livelihood, Avetisyan related. Avetisyan is interested in job creation to keep the local population stable, and her main employment is at the Institute of Child and Adolescent Health of the Arabkir Medical Center.

Lilit Haroyan, member of the 27-person Charetsavan Consolidated Community Council, works on environmental issues, accessible schools for children with disabilities, and new playgrounds, and is a successful local entrepreneur. Charentsavan is part of Kotayk Province, she said, and was founded in 1947 as an industrial center. It had 12 large factories. Today, it is one enlarged (i.e. “consolidated”) community with five villages. The non-active volcanic Gutanasar provides heat even during the winter snows, and Charentsavan also is the site of the largest of the three musical organs located in Armenia, Haroyan related.

The Armenian visitors at Cambridge City Hall: back row, from left: Roxanne Etmekjian (president of Cambridge-Yerevan Sister City Association), Svetlana Hovhannisyan (interpreter), Meri Harutyunyan (Yerevan Municipality Staff), Quinton Zondervan (Cambridge City Councilor), Pat Jehlen (State Senator), Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, Marc McGovern (Cambridge City Councilor), Lilit Haroyan (Charentsavan City Councilor), Dennis Carlone (Cambridge City Councilor), Emmett Vorspan (aide to Dennis Carlone); front row, from left: Lilit Hajatyan (Artik City Councilor), Arusyak Avetisyan (Vardenis City Councilor), Shushanik Danielyan (Yeghegis Municipality Staff), Lilit Antonyan (facilitator for the program) (photo courtesy CYSCA)

The last panelist, Shushanik Danielyan, is from the Yeghegis Consolidated Community, which contains 12 villages, and is located in Vayots Dzor Province. Danielyan remarked that among its famous products is wine from Areni, which is both a toponym and the name of variety of grapes. Danielyan is Development Program Coordinator for the Yeghegis municipality, and works to promote tourism and economic development.

Even before the Artsakh Armenian population was forced to flee last month, Yeghegis had already hosted 300 forcibly displaced people from Artsakh. Danielyan noted that there is a youth organization founded in 2021 through which volunteers help the displaced Artsakh Armenians. Youth of the area also are active in the Syunik Development NGO, which was founded in 1996.

The five visiting panelists spoke in Armenian and their words were translated by Hovhannisyan. The last part of the slideshow was narrated by Antonyan, who spoke fluent English (she has an undergraduate degree from Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania and a graduate degree in political science from Villanova University). Antonyan emphasized that the number one issue facing Armenia today was its security and territorial integrity. The Armenian government has also raised the right of return of the displaced Artsakh people, with their need for safety and security. She said that the Armenian government attempts to raise these issues in various forums.

She also spoke about the problems of the refugees, who need immediate shelter, housing, economic integration and employment so they can stay in Armenia.

Discussion

The panelists then fielded a variety of questions from the audience. They described how the Artsakh refugees were distributed in all the different provinces of Armenia very quickly. They spoke about the difficulties of women in government. Though the law requires that at least 30 percent of municipal council members be women, they are not always given the same respect or authority as other members.

All council members must in theory belong to a political party slate, but in practice on the local level the political parties don’t really work because local people don’t consider ideology or party, according to one panelist. They just choose the group they think will win, so people switched to the Civil Contract Party (the party of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan) to get in power, but the same people were always involved in election fraud.  Another panelist, Avetisyan, declared that in Vardenis all parties work together for the benefit of their community, though there were some emotions and complications during elections.

Danielyan noted that she and Harutyunyan, as municipal employees, were not members of political parties and so were nonpartisan.

Some of the panelists expressed their surprise at how clean the US was, and the sense of punctuality and responsibility of citizens. All of the panelists expressed thanks to the organizers of their visits. They declared they learned a lot and would use that information in their work back in Armenia.

Recently, Etmekjian revealed one more interesting bit of news to the Mirror-Spectator: shortly after the delegates left, COIL notified CYSCA that it would be awarded another grant on the topic “Cultural Heritage Preservation in Armenia,” scheduled for July 10-20, 2024.

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