Visiting two recipients of BEARR Small Grants in Armenia

Sophie Vandyck, BEARR Information Officer

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Old and new in Yerevan

In August 2019 I had the privilege of visiting and evaluating two organisations working to make a difference to vulnerable groups in the Kotayk and Yerevan regions of Armenia; the ISHR and Improve Our Village. 

The International Society for Human Rights, Armenia, is connected with ISHR organisations in other countries, but operates in general very independently.

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The ISHR, Yerevan is one of many ISHR organisations around the world

Bela Shikaryan, the founder and chairperson received me at her house in a suburb of Yerevan, which also serves as her office. Her niece, who also works in the organisation, was also present. In the ten years that they have been in operation, the ISHR have had a fair amount of luck with international funding and recognition. Bela explained that they had begun as idealistic journalists and lawyers making documentaries to expose human rights abuses and this then developed into lobbying, research and running projects. 

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A monument with St. Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral, Yerevan.

 In 2017 The BEARR Trust funded a project related to children’s mental health, the theme of that year’s Small Grants Scheme. Bela explained that the grant had enabled them to ‘take risks’ and ‘try a new approach’.

She felt that the results were very good.  They had identified families who had a child or children who were not going to school due to poor mental (sometimes also physical) health and behavioural problems. The family groups identified as needing assistance all lived in impoverished conditions.

As part of the project, the ISHR established contact between these families and a psychologist and organised free sessions for each of the families.  Through group activities and workshops they also expanded the ability of the family and, more particularly, the child, to socialise. The families who benefitted from the project were able to find support in a community of parents who all faced similar difficulties raising a child who found operating in society challenging due to their poor mental health.

The ISHR (Yerevan) did not advocate the use of medicine, rather the positive effects of socialising any child, but particularly these children, who all lived with some form of disability and had been very much isolated, stuck at home rather than socialising with peers. They also provided (free of charge) protective clothing for children who suffered from severe epilepsy, to protect them from hurting themselves on the floor or furniture in their home. They observed positive results with all the participants, and some children were then able to attend school. 

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A session with a psychologist, ISHR 2017.

The ISHR would have liked to continue the project by assisting older children and young people of 16 or 17 to find employment and access work opportunities in some capacity, as the BEARR-funded project focused on younger children. They still hope to run such a project in the future. 

Currently the ISHR, Yerevan, are operating with EU money to raise awareness of the rights of working people in Armenia. 

After conducting extensive research in many supermarkets around Yerevan and in other parts of Armenia (which included data collection, analysis and a report) they established that employees were not given any or only inadequate breaks during the day and were afraid  of losing their jobs if they complained. The ISHR managed to expose this however (as well as releasing videos to raise awareness in society about the employment rights to which workers are entitled) and the (new) government has since brought in stricter employment laws and policies to protect the rights of shop employees. They have seen an active, positive change. Bela maintained that their multiple successes in this area are proof that the government is now taking the organisation seriously straight away, working with them as allies, rather than seeing them as an ‘annoyance’. 

When I asked about how the 2018 revolution and subsequent change of government had affect ISHR more generally, Bela explained that  they had noticed a very positive change in how their work was  perceived and how their lobbying and activism were received. The new government has invited them to provide data and raise awareness of issues that they have worked on and is actually basing new policies on research provided by the ISHR, Yerevan.

The ISHR are also part of a group of ten NGOs in Armenia who act as watchdogs for the upholding of human rights within the country and meet at regular intervals to share ideas, information and experience. They now have links in more than 40 countries as part of the International Society for Human Rights. They are also linked with four other NGOs in Armenia who work specifically on employment rights. 

I was struck by Bela’s stoicism, tireless attitude and willingness to try out different ideas and projects in order to contribute to strengthening civil society and improve the rights and (by extension) lives of vulnerable people in the capital and throughout the country.

My second port of call was Improve Our Village, an organisation based in the Kotayk region which I visited after a trip to the beautiful Lake Sevan. 

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Sevanavank Monastery Complex, Lake Sevan

Unlike the ISHR, which runs out of Bela’s home office, Improve Our Village serves a close-knit agricultural community, but over a wide area of several villages and out of two different small offices. 

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Improve Our Village NGO, Kotayk Region

At the time of visiting, Improve Our Village had received two grants from The BEARR Trust. The first, in 2016, was to run beekeeping workshops for Syrian refugees living in the area, in order for them to learn new skills and livelihoods. This project had allowed the refugees who took part in the programme to become part of the local community.  

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Beekeeping training, 2016 Improve Our Village

The second grant, in 2019, was for a project to combat violence against women and girls through early marriage in the long-established Yazidi community (a significant ethnic minority) in the region. 

Anahit Tovmasyan, the charity’s director met me at one of Improve our Village’s offices, based at an agricultural college in the village of Argel. She was accompanied by two young volunteers (of secondary school age) who also joined in the discussion.

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Organic Farming Classrom, Argel Agricultural College

We spoke at length about the improvements that had come about through their work in general – creating a fund and scholarships for disadvantaged young people to attend the agricultural college, working with the most vulnerable in the community, and their project working with the men and women of the Yazidi community to keep their daughters in education (rather than at home or married) for longer, allowing them more opportunities and a brighter future. 

The 2019 project, which was already under way at the time of my visit, had already started to yield positive results, with young girls and mothers (from Yazidi and non-Yazidi backgrounds)  attending cooking classes to learn and work together in a social, non-judgemental setting, whilst also learning about the rights of women and girls to education and the right to wait until adulthood for marriage and motherhood. 

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Anahit with two dedicated volunteers. Anahit is holding a copy of our paper newsletter which their 2016 Project report featured in.

Anahit observed that the work was ongoing and it would take follow-up projects to continue to reinforce these ideas, but also that the delivery of the project to the community meant that the ideas were already spreading among the young and old and different genders within the village communities, with great success and positive outcomes for the young Yazidi girls.

When I asked her about the influence of politics on her organisation and how the political changes had affected their work, she explained that whereas previously their work had been disregarded or considered in some way subversive, their efforts were now looked upon favourably by the government – to have volunteered at the organisation was now considered an asset to any young person’s CV. One of the volunteers present had been offered a job in local government partly due to her experience of working with Improve Our Village. 

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I had a lovely welcome from Anahit and her volunteers

Anahit, supported by a wonderful team of young, keen volunteers, is clearly the energy behind the diversity and range of Improve Our Village’s projects, with many different local and society issues being addressed by the organisation. They are also looking to improve the economy of the Kotayk area by training young people to work in tourism. 

I was incredibly lucky to visit two projects headed by such forceful women who really are forging the way for positive changes in society and improving the treatment of vulnerable people in the country. It is through local, grass roots organisations such as the ISHR and Improve Our Village that meaningful, long-term societal development and change for vulnerable groups and the rights afforded to them will continue to be made in Armenia and in the rest of the region where BEARR works. 

For further information about Improve Our Village’s 2019 project, see here.

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