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Karine Grigoryan: The Role of Civil Society in Ensuring Gender Equality

My fight for gender equality has started 45 years ago, when I acquired a disability due to my mother’s difficult labor. Years later, I learnt from a secret conversation between my parents, that the doctors had offered them the option to abandon me in the maternity hospital saying that I would not be able to live long with my disability and even if I could survive, I would develop mental disabilities. Moreover, they insisted that it would be even harder for my parents because I was a girl. If I had been a boy, it would have been easier for me to somehow arrange my life, they said. My dad and mom, of course, refused the offer saying that they would not be able to live, if they abandoned me, even if I would develop a heavy mental disability.

 

From that day on, my parents, instinctively, without realizing the deep roots of discrimination in our country, started fighting along with me. I remember how hard they tried to distract me so that I would not notice the compassionate or mocking glances of neighbors or passers-by.

 

When I was admitted to school, I began to realize that I was different from my peers, because I constantly noticed the surprised looks of students from other classes, their ridicule when they were imitating me. However my classmates quickly understood, appreciated my human qualities and accepted me as I was.

 

At the beginning of my university years, when coming home from classes every day, I would lock myself in my room so that my family would not see or feel my emotions. But in this case, too, I overcame obstacles very quickly and, as I had done previously, made wonderful friends.

 

After graduating from university with excellence, employers refused to hire me, saying that the job required a demanding schedule and did not match my abilities. But all this did not disappoint or hurt me. On the contrary, it made me stronger and more determined, because I was convinced that if I could change the stereotypes and attitudes of the people who came in contact with me, then I should strive to change the whole society step by step.

 

In 2006, I was lucky enough to attend a three-week course delivered by the Women's Institute on Leadership and Disability (WILD) in USA, which brought together women leaders living with disabilities from around 30 countries. The programme completely altered both me and my destiny, I became self-confident, I began to believe in my strength and when I returned to Armenia, I felt that I was not the same and had no right to strive solely for my personal rights and goals.

 

My mission became to establish an organization that would unite women with disabilities in Armenia to focus our efforts on raising issues related to disability and gender-based inequalities, and to work together to address these issues. We named our organization Agate, after the semi-precious stone.

In the first year of the organization’s life, some people would ask: "Why did you establish a new organization? There are many similar organizations. Can you imagine how many difficulties a beginner like you will face?"

 

When I told the chair of such an organization that my goal was to empower women with disabilities by raising their awareness about their rights and developing their leadership skills, so that we could create a movement to advocate for our interests in Armenia, she sneered: "Dear, women with disabilities do not need such trainings, if you can, provide them with food or financial assistance, no one is interested in what you offer."

 

I realized the importance of competent, rights-based civil society organizations for the inclusive development of the country. I became more confident that we ourselves had to be the defenders of our rights, interests and dignity.

 

I'm proud that over the past 13 years, Agate has been able to change the lives of hundreds of women living with disabilities. Thanks to the skills acquired with our support, they now continue their education in higher education institutions, work, get married, have wonderful families, love and are loved, are able to defend their rights.

 

In my view, our role – the role of civil society organizations – is two-sided.

 

On the one hand, we work with people who are left behind by society, empowering them and making their voices heard by decision-makers.

On the other hand, we actively advocate at national and international levels for more effective and inclusive policies in our country.

 

Success and progress depend on a few things.

 

First of all, do not be afraid of being innovative and to raise issues that no one has ever dared to talk about.

In 2013, our organization raised the issue of sexual and reproductive health for women with disabilities for the first time. The topic was a taboo in Armenia at the time. During the publication of a health education book, we found out that the editor, without our permission, had omitted a few important topics related to sexual health from the book. In response to our complaint, he threatened to inform everyone that we were spreading perversion in Armenia. At that time, I could not even imagine that I would get married within a year, and when happily walking in Gyumri with my husband, would encounter the same editor, who would run away from us.

 

Next, it is very important that we do not limit ourselves to protecting the interests of only our stakeholders, ignoring the rights of others. To achieve real equality, it is crucial to cooperate with organizations protecting the rights of other vulnerable groups.

 

Only through that cooperation, did our organization manage to include the rights of women with disabilities on the agenda of various organizations and in development programmes, strategies and policies.

 

And finally, be positive, do not be disappointed with failures, and always try to find alternative solutions.

Let us all ponder for a moment.

 

Today, women around the world continue facing gender-based discrimination and violence, their rights to access different health care services are obstructed, and support services and shelters for women who have suffered from violence remain inaccessible to different groups of women with disabilities.

This is the right time to ponder – what are you personally doing to achieve an equal, non-discriminatory, obstacles-free society?

When I look back at my life journey, my difficulties, my challenges, I ask myself: What would my life had looked like if I had been a boy? I am convinced that I would not have been discriminated against in so many different ways. But I do not regret it for a second, and I am proud to be a woman. Otherwise, I might not have strived to achieve what I have achieved – changing the lives of so many.

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The video was prepared in the framework of the “EU 4 Gender Equality: Together against gender stereotypes and gender-based violence" programme, funded by the European Union, implemented jointly by UN Women and UNFPA.