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The Åland Islands Peace Institute

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AX-22100 Mariehamn, Åland, Finland
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The Åland Peace Blog

Since the very beginning (in 1992) the Åland Islands Peace Institute has
worked with questions of security, minorities and autonomy. The purpose is
to prevent and manage conflicts, always with a gender awareness. Throughout
the years we have gathered knowledge and strengthened expertise within these
areas, and a new phase was initiated in 2007 with the development of the
Peace Institute's research and investigation capacity. The Peace Institute
arranges seminars, conferences and courses within these areas and regularly
publishes reports and books. We believe that some of the knowledge and
the insights that we acquire should be disseminated to a wider public in a
shorter and quicker form. This is why we are creating the blog. It is
knowledge-oriented and analyzes or comments briefly - but quickly -
news, events and phenomena with the purpose of providing deeper
understanding. The staff and the board of the Peace Institute will
contribute to the blog.

Sia Spiliopoulou Åkermark
Director of the Peace Institute, Associate Professor in International Law


Sarah Stephan is the Project Manager for the project Open Doors that is focusing on gender equality, empowerment and participation in Azerbaijan. She is also a researcher whose interests include European and Public International Law, in particular post-conflict governance and multilevel governance in the European Union and beyond.

Why women remain absent from the peace process in Armenia and Azerbaijan

Mariehamn 7.3.2013

International Women’s Day, “celebrated” every year on 8 March, has long been a public holiday in the post-Soviet sphere. Originating in the labor
movement of the early 20thcentury, in the Soviet Union Women’s Day was celebrated to honor the contribution of women to the communist cause, for women’s efforts in public and private spheres alike, as workers, soldiers, mothers and wives. However, in today’s post-Soviet countries International Women’s Day seems to have lost part of that spirit. While gender equality always remained subordinate to the communist cause and was never fully realized, many post-Soviet countries have witnesses a decline of gender equality since independence. In the South Caucasus countries today, only little attention seems to be paid to the International Women’s Day as it is marked by the UN since the mid-70s, namely as the “Day for Women's Rights and International Peace”. The South Caucasus is a region where women remain highly marginalized and for precisely this reason the struggle for women’s rights in the South Caucasus deserves our attention, not only on 8 March.

A number of unresolved conflicts add to the hardship faced by many women in the South Caucasus. The peace process initiated after the outbreak of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabach in 1992 has not been successful. Looking at the prominent forces involved in the halting peace process, whether the delegates of the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan, representatives of international organizations or chief mediators (all men), the question of women’s participation in the peace process or rather in political life in general is self-imposing, not only on the Day for Women's Rights and International Peace.

In 1992 two women peace activists from the South Caucasus, Anahit Bayandur from Armenia and Arzu Abdullayeva from Azerbaijan were awarded the Olof Palme Price to honour “two women […] who, in one of the areas of a most bitter conflict, have worked for international understanding between Armenia and Azerbaijan”. The Palme Foundation considered Anahit’s and Arzu’s work for reconciliation a reason to hope for peaceful change in the former Soviet Union. Through my work at the Åland Islands Peace Institute I have had the honor to meet Arzu and many other female activists who are fighting on the civil society level to increase the participation of women in all spheres of society – not least within peace processes

The Nordic countries are often depicted as the prodigies of gender equality. The pictures is not as bright however - on average women are still paid less than their men colleagues for equal performance and men dominate the pictures of corporate and political life, not to speak of highly gendered marketing strategies behind toys, clothing, electronics, cars  and what have you that surround Nordic citizens just as everyone else. But indeed, the awareness of such gendered structures, which are omni-present and yet often remain unseen, is rising in the Nordic countries with a wealth of initiatives, articles, literature and blogs addressing gender-based discrimination in different areas of life. While gender equality is high on the agendas and item on the budgets of the Nordic governments, civil society organizations and individual activists play crucial roles in unveiling discriminatory structures and drawing up alternatives. Awareness raising needs public support but in many instances it starts from within civil society. In Armenia and Azerbaijan, this is one of the areas where women activists encounter tremendous obstacles.

A recent report by Kvinna till Kvinna, a Swedish organisation engaged in supporting women in areas of war and conflict, reflects to a high degree the Peace Institute’s experience in working with feminist organizations in the South Caucasus. The report “Equal Power – Lasting Peace” maps the obstacles for women’s participation in peace processes in five conflict areas including Armenia and Azerbaijan. In “Equal Power – Lasting Peace”, Kvinna till Kvinna investigates what it is that effectively inhibits women’s access to power in Armenia/Azerbaijan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Liberia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The chapter on Armenia and Azerbaijan is entitled “Stuck in conflict over Nagorno-Karabach” and it highlights in a very instructive way why it is not only the conflict as such which is stuck but also women, in structures effectively marginalizing their voices.

“Equal Power – Lasting Peace” identifies the lack of power among women to be based on the following inter-connected obstacles:

  • Government control over civil society activities, where women in fact play a more prominent role, through the creation of so-called GONGOs, government NGOs, a contradiction in terms which results in a competition for funding which genuine civil society organizations are predestined to lose.
  • In Azerbaijan’s and Armenia’s highly corrupt and elite Government structures, women, who tend not to have access to the economic resources necessary, remain largely excluded from powerful political networks and ultimately from decision-making processes.
  • Quota for women in parliament and government bodies have resulted in mere “window-dressing”, those women who are being admitted into political networks benefit from nepotism and are expected not to hold controversial opinions but rather act as representatives of influential male family members. Women politicians rarely use their power to advocate for women’s rights.
  •  “Artificial” gender awareness, legislation and equality measures adopted as a chimera for international organizations without efficient enforcement mechanisms. Women’s rights and the participation of women are guaranteed on paper but do not become fully effective.
  • The Nagorno-Karabach conflict as such is perceived as a priority issue, which has to be resolved before gender equality can be awarded genuine attention. However, without working for the elimination of discrimination against women on the structural level and with regard to societal norms at large, women will remain effectively excluded from the negotiating table to the detriment of the peace process.
  • The absence of women representatives of international organizations such as the EU or OSCE in the peace process, in addition to the exclusiveness of the peace process (not involving civil society), indirectly licenses the exclusion of women on the site of the conflicting parties.
  • Short-term international engagement effectively excludes the long-term perspectives including the structural changes necessary for building sustainable peace.
  • Last but not least, the deeply embedded “macho-culture” prevalent in the South Caucasus, resulting in a strong public/private divide, confines women to the roles of mothers and wives and creates obstacles for women i.a. to seek employment and own property and participate in politics.

Many of the reasons for the exclusion of women from decision-making processes are circular and reinforce each other, and in fact are not unknown to Nordic/European countries. In Armenia and Azerbaijan, women who succeed in gaining access to power are often targeted by libel and slander campaigns and face personal attacks which question their background and virtues. Women are clearly expected to adhere to different norms than men and remain trapped in the traditional role of mother and caretaker. Very rarely is this picture questioned. Quite the opposite, the division of women’s and men’s roles is largely understood as a consequence of the distinct “nature” of women and men, a biological fact and not the result of social construction. Kvinna till Kvinna highlights that women in conflict areas have successfully exploited this stereotype in order to gain access to peace processes, but by subordinating women to a stereotype role have ultimately circumcised their room for maneuver and remain excluded from politics in post-conflict settings. Categorizing women according to gendered stereotypes does not follow a Human Rights based approach and does not tackle discriminatory structures at their roots. The public-private divide thus stands strong. As Kvinna till Kvinna concludes: “Today however, the traditional division of virtues between men and women has partly turned into a trap”.

It is this division which the Peace Institute’s partner organizations in the South Caucasus want to permeate, by educating youths and adults on the individual and societal consequences of domestic violence, by mobilizing for the adoption and enforcement of the legal frameworks for gender equality and by giving women and girls space for critical reflection and active citizenship, i.a. through using the Nordic Girl Group Method or similar approaches to empowerment. For women the way to the negotiating table is a long one.  The norms and structures in their own societies, as well as those that have been defining for international engagement, continue to guide women towards a more passive position. Nonetheless, Kvinna till Kvinna’s report also highlight that women in the South Caucasus have functioned as bridge-builders.

Åland functioned as a meeting place for parliamentarians from Armenia and Azerbaijan for the first time in 1993, i.e. during the period of violent conflict and even within the Minsk process, a Russia/US/France-led mediation effort, an early meeting was held on Åland. Arzu and Anahit visited Åland and the Åland Islands Peace Institute for the first time in 1995 and most recently in 2010. The Peace Institute’s commitment to the support of civil society peace initiatives has continued since. The Peace Institute cooperates with women’s organizations in Armenia and Azerbaijan and has over the years arranged workshops for young women and feminist activists on Åland and in the region. We have met many young female activists who work to counter the destructive enemy images, which are being spread particularly among youths, by highlighting the similarities in the lives of women across the South Caucasus and together claiming equal participation of women in the peace process. Experience speaks a clear language – peace gained with the equal participation of women is more likely to last.

Every time women agree to meet, just as Arzu and Anahit and our volunteers here at the Peace Institute, working side-by-side every day, they make a contribution to peace-building on the civil society level. Personal encounters are what the young generation is kept from making in its home region, where the borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan remain closed, but this is something civil society around the world can facilitate. Like Kvinna till Kvinna and the Palme Center, the Åland Islands Peace Institute continues its commitment to support women’s organizations and civil society peace initiatives in the South Caucasus.


Equal Power –Lasting Peace  can be downloaded here in full length or as country-specific reports: http://www.equalpowerlastingpeace.org/the-report/.

Read about Kvinna till kvinna’s work in the South Caucasus here http://old.kvinnatillkvinna.se/en/article/3085  and the Olof Palme International Center’s engagement here http://www.palmecenter.se/Vad-tycker-vi/Artikelarkiv/Ostra-Europa/Ovriga1/Ovriga/100617NagornoKarabach/  and here http://www.palmecenter.se/Vad-tycker-vi/Artikelarkiv/Ostra-Europa/Ovriga1/120507-Sjung-for-demokrati--oppositionella-hoppas-pa-Eurovision-Song-Contest-i-Azerbajdzjan/ .

On 4 May 2011, 20 years after Anahit and Arzu have received the Palme Price and after Anahit’s passing, the Olof Palme International Center invited Arzu to remind us of and provide us with an update about the conflict at a seminar in Stockholm, the seminar can be seen in full length at http://www.svtplay.se/klipp/114540/seminarium-om-azerbajdzjan.

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Bloggen skrivs av Fredsinstitutets nuvarande eller tidigare personal, gästforskare och styrelseledamöter eller av inbjudna gästskribenter. Åsikterna är författarens egna.

The blog pieces are written by the peace institute's present or former staff, guest researchers, board members or invited guest writers. The opinions are the author's own.