Armenia’s Absentee Breadwinners
Sixty-year-old Gevorg Gevorgyan was born and grew up in Gyumri, a city in northern Armenia. Gevorg, who is an architect and builder by profession, worked in his hometown for 30 years. Like many other Armenian men, he emigrated to Russia, where he also found work in construction.
In Armenian society, it is generally accepted that a man should be the breadwinner and support his family. But due to rural poverty, stories like Gevorgyan’s are commonplace in Armenia today: the only option many men have to put bread on their families’ tables is to say goodbye to those families, and find work overseas. The realities of modern life in Armenia thus present a dilemma for gender roles. When a father who provides is an absent father, what implications does that have for traditional views of family life?
“I’ve had a hammer and nails in my hands all my life. My father liked to say that Armenians can squeeze bread from stone; that’s what I did. I can hardly remember the days when I stayed at home and didn’t work. It was very uncomfortable for me not to do anything,” recalls Gevorg.
The tragic earthquake which hit Gyumri in 1988 destroyed more than 50 villages and badly damaged 11 towns and cities across northern Armenia. For several fateful seconds, life in Armenia stopped; the effects lingered for years. The factories came to a standstill, people became jobless and homeless.
“I almost went crazy because I couldn’t work those days. But then I pulled myself together and realized that I had no right to sit at home and do nothing. I had to earn a living for my family,” says Gevorgyan. “My wife had never worked. There was a clear distribution of roles in our family; I was the breadwinner, my wife was responsible for taking care and growing up children”, he continues.
Faced with the urgent need to feed a family, Gevorg Gevorgyan took the only available option. He headed to Russia to find whatever work he could.
Aghasi Tadevosyan, a researcher at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography at the Armenian National Academy of Sciences in Yerevan, told Chai Khana that such stories were not uncommon, and that they reflected the sweeping changes in economic fortune and gender equality over the course of the last century.
“Due to men’s physical strength, they always did hard labor while their wives took care of the children. During industrialization in the 1930s and 1950s this difference became even starker; there was a greater demand for male labor in the factories,” explains Tadevosyan.
According to the ethnographer, at the very start of the Soviet period, women began to engage in a wider range of activities in the workplace and became more educated. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 their lot changed yet again.
“In the post-Soviet period, women returned to the kitchen and home to take care of children as men went out to work. However, in recent years the situation in Armenia has changed as women have become more self-confident, so can earn more money to support their families,” the ethnographer explains.
“There are a lot of girls working in the field of information technology, particularly in the 17-20 years age group. They are already leaders, highly educated, and can feed their own families,” adds Tadevosyan, though stresses that although Armenian women are becoming more independent by the day, Armenian men are still unwilling to accept the idea that a woman can also be a breadwinner for her family.
Gevorg appears to be one of them.
“He has never allowed me to work,” says his wife, 58-year-old Gohar Gevorgyan. “He used to say that a man was born to earning money and provide for the family, while the woman’s duties are in the home. Gevorg never left us hungry, but we always missed him.”
The Gevorgyans have three children: two daughters, who both got married and moved to Russia several years ago, and one son. When 28-year-old Torgom grew up, he joined his father and headed abroad to find work. The father and son have worked together for two years to provide for their family. Gevorgyan used to leave Armenia every spring and return in autumn, which he says is the norm for seasonal labor migrants.
Last year, Gevorg had to remain in Armenia for health reasons; he had a stroke from which he has only recently started to recover. These days he can only walk with assistance from others.
“I couldn’t go myself so I didn’t let my son go alone. He has already found a job here and works as a driver. It’s true that he doesn’t earn enough money, but he wants to stay near me. But even if he decides to go to Russia he will not be alone. From Armenia we usually leave to Russia by groups. Before going we get an order for constructing a house or another building, then we create a group of competent professionals and leave together. Many of us stay together in one house there. We all have the same goal: to earn money and to keep our families provided for,” explains Gevorgyan.
According to the Statistical Committee of the Republic of Armenia, from January to December 2018, 3,741,855 people exited the country (a number which also includes foreign citizens and multiple departures from Armenia.) While it is hard to generalize about these figures, the timing of many of these departures strongly suggest that many of these journeys are made by seasonal labor migrants. The Statistical Committee’s spokesperson Nelli Davtyan told Chai Khana that the numbers of people leaving the country each spring is increasing and in the autumn the number of arrivals goes up. However, there are no exact statistics about these migrants’ age and sex.
Twenty-five-year old Levon Asatryan is of a different generation, but Armenia’s economic insecurity has had an impact on his family life: he’s single, partly because he is uncertain that he could provide for a family. Even if he does marry, Asatryan would feel uncomfortable living off the money earned by his future wife.
“I’ve set several goals. I will not get married until I achieve them. They’re modest goals; I want to get an MA degree, which will help me to find a better paid job. I will also renovate my apartment and save some money.”
Asatryan became an orphan when he was 11 years old. Since then, his aunts and uncle took care of him. When he was 18, he did mandatory military service. And when was back he entered the National Polytechnic University of Armenia in the capital of Yerevan. He has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and is currently studying for an MA degree in the same field.
“My relatives used to tell me that I shouldn’t work until I finish my studies. I was financially secure. My guardians were helping me out and I was getting a state pension as an orphan. But I couldn’t live the life of a person who does nothing. In the second year of my university I applied for a job in the Yerevan Metro Company and got a position there. I told my relatives about my job when on my first working day,” says Levon.
Alongside his work in the metro Asatryan also worked for private companies setting up security cameras and internal telephone networks. Thanks to that experience and his self-taught expertise in communication technology, he quit his job in the metro and found a new position at Armenia’s leading telecommunications company.
Despite the hardships, Asatryan does not give a moment’s thought to migrant labor. He says that even though life is tough, he prefers to stay and work in his homeland.
Perhaps that is because he has the potential for a stable future here in Yerevan. Asatryan inherited an apartment from his mother. He does not live there but he plans to completely renovate it this year, and hopefully start a family the next.
“I love planning. But I’m joking when I mention my plans about creating a family. I cannot force myself to fall in love in 2020 and marry,” remarks Asatryan with smile, adding that he has succeeded in convincing himself not to start a family until he has more financial security. “Of course, I’m not saying that a woman has no right to work, but she is not the one who should take the burden of providing for the family. That’s exclusively a man’s duty,” he declares.