The Gendered Dimension of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
By Kirthi Jayakumar
Photo: Joint march of activists calling for peace, August 2014 via Women in Black Armenia.
In the newest among a long-standing series of conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan, September 27 marked a new clash along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, around the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. There have been several incidents in the recent past, and the last full-blown war between both nations was in the 1990s. The gendered impact of the conflict and the exclusion of women from peace processes remain major concerns in the conflict.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: A history
Historically Armenian territory, Nagorno-Karabakh was placed under Azerbaijan’s rule in the 1920s by Stalin. A clear attempt at divide-and-rule, this move led to violent conflict when the USSR was dissolved and culminated in an attempted ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population in the region. From that point on, there were several incidents of violent conflict and even outright war, with the last instance of such war taking place in the 1990s. Nagorno-Karabakh proclaimed independence in 1991, but its independence has neither been recognized by the Azerbaijan and Armenia, nor by the United Nations. Both countries have often clashed across the border. Despite signing a ceasefire in 1994, low-intensity armed conflict with occasional flareups continued. With the outbreak and escalation of violence since September 27, 2020, violence continues unabashed, claiming several lives. Martial law has been declared on both sides, with partial-to-full mobilization. This may just be the worst instance of escalation between both nations since the 1994 ceasefire, and threatens the likelihood of full-scale war.
The gendered impact
The impact of the conflict, like all other instances of armed and violent conflict world over, was disproportionately felt by the women. Gender-based violence has been rarely mentioned explicitly as an impact of the war (Kvinna Till Kvinna Foundation/KTKF). However, there is evidence to show that there was a normalization of gender-based violence and an equally rigid culture of silence. KTKF reported the normalization of gender-based violence in the region, augmented by a culture of silence. The report indicated "the strong relationship between the experience of war and violence, whether at the frontline or at home."
In terms of specific forms of violence, KTKF also indicated that Survival sex is normalised in the context of the conflict, where socially and economically disadvantaged women are often pressured to offer sexual services in exchange for money. The buying and selling of sex in the bordering regions and territories around military bases, as well. Trafficking and domestic violence continue to take place in high numbers.
The number of women involved in the peace process in Armenia and Azerbaijan remains low at best, and most women peace activists are engaged either in Track II or Track III diplomacy. Currently, Nagorno-Karabakh is a small, but functional state, but has not been recognized by Armenia or Azerbaijan, and doesn’t find a spot on the negotiation table. Domestic violence continues to take place, indicating that violence continues, unabashed, across the home-to-outside continuum. While in the 1990s, women participated in political and peace processes in high numbers – a time that KVK noted that ‘many Armenian women look back on … as ‘The Golden Years’ for women’s involvement’, contemporary realities are very different.
Building Peace through a Gender Lens
At the height of the conflict, in 1992, two women – Arzu Abdullayeva and Anahit Bayandur facilitated an exchange of prisoners-of-war and helped promote dialogue between both sides. The masculinized structures of the OSCE Minsk Group have not been able to end the armed conflict – which is constantly presented as a fight between the right to self-determination on part of the Karabakh Armenians and the right to territorial integrity on part of Azerbaijan. To employ a gender lens is not only to understand the impact of armed conflict on non-cis-het men, but is also to examine how the power dynamics in society have both contributed to and been maintained by the armed conflict in the past – with patriarchal and militarised praxis guiding any attempt at peace. To employ a gender lens is also to understand the way power operates to keep violence alive, and the structural violence that enables that power to thrive.
Looking to the future
The prospect of war is especially alarming given the implications it can have for the region. Given its status as a corridor for pipelines taking oil and gas to global markets, Nagorno-Karabakh being embroiled in the throes of war threatens to affect this channel and the oil and gas markets in themselves. The strategic location with Iran to the South, Russia and Turkey to the north and west, and massive Caspian hydrocarbon reserves to the east, means that an outright armed conflict can prove to be a very costly and destructive option. The conflict could also draw other regional players - from Russia to Turkey. Nagorno-Karabakh’s future toward peace and recognition as a state will remain dim prospects until Armenia and Azerbaijan commit to the agenda of peace. In the words of Thomas de Waal to Al Jazeera, “It is a conflict of identity, of territory, between two nations – Armenia and Azerbaijan – and the outside world is not going to solve it … It has to be their own calculation.”
The key to the future could well lie in a commitment to peace with the involvement of women, as well. Given the extent of violence the war normalizes, especially gender-based violence, the lived experiences of women in the context of the armed conflict portends greater demands on their future. Even as the women themselves evince empathy and acknowledge that the adverse impacts of armed conflict are shared on both sides of the border, the background of militarist nationalism makes it impossible for the women to come together to build peace. The idea, then, should be to enable women to not only come together for peace, but to also reframe the very peace table in full. In the words of Sinead Walsh: “A gender inclusive approach to the Karabakh process may provide the best hope for lasting peace.”