The trucks were being loaded with humanitarian aid for the frontlines, everything necessary was included, so they thought. Big boxes with food, medicine and more. But one woman looked skeptically at the process, she told feminist peace-building organisation Kvinna Till Kvinna, and asked if they couldn’t replace packs of cigarettes with sanitary pads.
This happened in Azerbaijan a few days into the ongoing war over Nagorno-Karabakh, though Anne Nemsitsveridze and Regina Jegorova-Askerova, who work for Kvinna Till Kvinna, report that similar situations have taken place in Armenia when we speak over Zoom. As they explain, it’s not only humanitarian aid that forgets about women’s needs and women’s perspectives, and this problem is obstructing finding a road towards peace again.
On 27 September, Azerbaijan started a military offensive to take control of the unrecognised region inhabited by ethnic Armenians, and which is de jure Azerbaijani territory. In the month since, the civilian and military losses have been heavy on both sides, and thousands of people have been displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh. Ceasefires appear to have had little impact on the actual fighting, and evidence of war crimes being committed by both Azerbaijan and Armenia is mounting.
On 9 October, 13 days after the clashes erupted, Kvinna till Kvinna, which has been supporting women and building peace in the South Caucasus for almost two decades, released a brief with a worrying message: “women’s expertise, priorities, and needs are made invisible, and the human security of the populations at large is treated as a secondary concern to ending the military offensive, as if one can happen without the other.”
The organisation has called on international organisations to create an emergency fund for women human rights defenders and peacebuilders, and not only recognise, but use women’s humanitarian leadership.
I decided to call Anne Nemsitsveridze and Regina Jegorova-Askerova, two of the authors of the brief, to understand why the voices of women are being ignored and how this impacts the road towards peace - out of the current active war.
“Women are those who are there silently doing things on the ground,” Jegorova-Askerova tells me, “but when you look at the experts talking about the issues, you have white men dominating the information sphere.”
This dynamic becomes particularly problematic when you look at the national narratives that have started intensifying around masculinity and femininity in both countries, Nemsitsveridze and Jegorova-Askerova explain to me. In both cases, the “enemy” are portrayed as “unmanly,” while internally women are portrayed as “the mothers of the nation,” serving as “incubators” for a next generation of soldiers and taking care of the country while the men are at war
As experience shows, they say, after the war is over these same women are forgotten, and are expected to selflessly “demand no compensation for their losses, put up with returned ‘warriors’’ war trauma and sometimes abuse and violence, because the latter are the ‘heroes” of the nation’.”
Before the conflict erupted, women’s rights organisations and activists in Armenia and Azerbaijan whom Kvinna till Kvinna work with had already started experiencing a deteriorating environment. In Armenia, anti-women narratives gained new traction, portraying women’s rights groups as a threat to traditional values - resulting in digital hate speech and slander campaigns, and sometimes even physical violence. In authoritarian Azerbaijan, state-introduced policies had shrunk the civic space in general, and trying to build peace had become dangerous for women rights activists.
Nemsitsveridze and Jegorova-Askerova explain that due to these perspectives activists are sometimes seen as “traitors” for threatening the “traditional family”.
But women have been for a long time running families in both countries, as large parts of the male population were working abroad to earn money. And with war raging, this has become even more prominent, but also more important in terms of finding a path towards peace, Jegorova-Askerova says.
“Because women are more in the breadwinner role, they are also willing to compromise more,” she says, “It doesn't matter to them who is the enemy or not, they need to feed the kids and to survive. And this survival mode can be used in a way to rebuild trust.” Both experts mention that they have actually seen more examples of women who have lost their sons in war who were ready to talk to the other side than any other.
But until now have national governments and some international organisations been unable to recognise women’s perspectives and needs, they claim. “Women are portrayed as victims of the violence, of victims of the war, or mothers, or those who provide the nation with more soldiers,” Jegorova-Askerova says, adding that describing them as such is not about involving women, or inclusion - because that would entail actually listening to what the women believe needs to be done, and that might be “uncomfortable”.
“Many international actors are working with experts on the ground, mainly men, who are producing publications with their own analysis, and who bear no responsibility over what happens next,” Nemsitsveridze says. “And the analyses completely lack women's priorities, which is especially harmful as women are much more seriously and widely affected by the war narrative and the conflict in general through many implications which extend way beyond the actual hostilities.”
The women on the ground, those running their communities, should be the ones considered the experts, even if they themselves do not see themselves as such, Nemsitsveridze and Jegorova-Askerova tell me.
Building the infrastructure for sustainable peace is a long term process, where the structure of violence is eliminated step by step, after which more settled approaches can come in, they explain to me. “People need to be ready to live with each other again, maybe through trade, through connecting with each other by sharing some of the memories,” Jegorova-Askerova says. She adds that this will fail if the voices of women aren’t heard, with narratives only revolving around territorial claims instead of the human dimension of war.