Poverty and the Rights of Children in Armenia, Public Lecture by Armine K. Hovannisian

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December 18th, 2012

ARMENIA

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS—Armine Hovannisian, executive director of Junior Achievement of Armenia and founder of the NGO Orran, gave a public lecture on Sunday, November 11, 2012, on the current state of children in Armenia in the context of high levels of poverty. The event was organized by the Charles K. and Elisabeth M. Kenosian Chair in Modern Armenian History and Literature at Boston University and co-sponsored by The Zoryan Institute (Arlington, MA, and Toronto, Canada) and the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) (Belmont, MA).

Professor Simon Payaslian, current Kenosian Chair at Boston University, welcomed the audience and introduced Mr. Raffi Yeghiayan, Chairman of the Board of Directors of NAASR, who, on behalf of the organization, expressed congratulatory remarks.

Payaslian then introduced the guest speaker. Ms. Hovannisian stated that Armenia has been quick to sign laws and treaties on the rights of children and education, including the 1989 UN Convention on Rights of the Child, which Armenia signed in 1992, but implementation has proven more difficult. She gave the example that by law, children with disabilities are supposed to be regarded equally, but in practice many disabled children are institutionalized and kept away from their homes and families. As a nation that reveres and welcomes children and families, some things in Armenia need to change, in order to create a better environment for future generations.

Ms. Hovannisian estimated that out of a population of 3.1 million, about 819,000 children live in Armenia today, representing 21% of the population. Approximately 26% of children are reported to live below the official poverty line, but, she added, these figures are “grossly underestimated”; the more accurate figure would probably be around 30% of the population.

With respect to educational institutions, Ms. Hovannisian noted that there are 642 kindergartens in 460 communities across Armenia, with about 55,711 children. However, most are neglected and poorly funded. Under the Soviet government, kindergartens were an attractive educational option, but since then, funding has been assigned to local municipalities and has since fallen into grave disarray. There are also 1,383 public schools and 53 private schools, 100 of them being high schools. Ms. Hovannisian mentioned the tight-knit communities of these schools, where children usually remain with their classmates from grade 1 to graduation, making a school more like a family. But financial troubles plague higher-level schools as well, and many children are forced to stay out of school; the prices of supplies, clothes, lunches, and ‘voluntary expenses’ are too high for their families to afford.

Orphanages and boarding schools also house some Armenian children. The seven state and three private orphanages in the country house approximately 900 children. Seven boarding schools exist for the children whose parents cannot afford to provide adequate care; in the boarding school, a child is provided with food, education, and a bed, and visit their families during weekends. However, these schools do not provide a good long-term environment. Without good role models and a push to succeed, most children do not have the motivation or skills needed to enter the workforce after graduation. Also problematic are the post-graduation issues: what to do next? Some programs have been established, teaching students vocational skills, but they are far-reaching or comprehensive enough to provide a lasting effect.

In addition to education, many families struggle with health and social issues. Armenia is experiencing rapid depopulation. The government offers incentives and stipends for parents to have children, the monetary incentive increasing with each successive child. Unfortunately, some parents have children simply for the financial benefits, which engenders large families without the adequate resources and planning to take care of them.

Family ties are also strained. Fathers leave the country to find work elsewhere, usually in Russia, and send their earnings back to their wives and children in Armenia. All too often, however, fathers get caught up in their new lives and remarry with new children, forgetting or choosing not to send money back to Armenia. Single mothers carry a heavy burden in Armenia. Remittances help but they are not a long-term solution to the problems. Remittances amounted to $996 million in 2011, up from $65 million in 1995. In 2011, remittances accounted for 10.63% of the nation’s GDP.

Ms. Hovannisian discussed practical ways of addressing the problem of child poverty. She stated that together with her husband, Raffi K. Hovannisian, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Armenia, they founded the NGO Orran in 2000. Orran (in Armenian: ‘haven’), which began as a rented apartment in Yerevan, currently feeds over one hundred people daily, in addition to providing arts and crafts workshops as well as jobs.

In closing, Ms. Hovannisian presented a slideshow, which she calls “Shattered Dreams,” about Ashkhen, a mother, depicting the everyday lives of poor Armenians. Ashkhen, a fruit and vegetable vendor, cannot support herself and her two children. As a result, her six-year-old son, Mishi, lives at a boarding school away from the family. Ashken’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Susie, lives with her mother in their rented two-room apartment. “The greatest victim of poverty is the mother,” Ms. Hovannisian said. Alone with her two children, Ashkhen struggles to meet life’s most basic needs: food and shelter. Sadly, Ashkhen is not a minority in Armenia.

The lecture concluded with a question and answer segment and calls for members of the Armenian Diaspora to aid their countrymen in the homeland. In her closing remarks, Ms. Hovannisian said: “You are at your tallest when you bend to help a child.” Ms. Hovannisian stands very tall, indeed.

Armine K. Hovannisian, J.D., has served as Executive Director of Junior Achievement of Armenia, in Yerevan, since 1993. In 2000, she founded Orran, a charity NGO for children, and has served as the Chairperson of its Board since then. Mother of five children, she has served as advisor to various organizations and agencies, such as the Minister of Education of Armenia in 1998, and has received numerous awards for her civic activities, including the Fridtjof Nansen Medal in 2006. Hovannisian received her Juris Doctorate from UCLA School of Law in 1988.