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FILM: Women with Disabilities in Armenia on Getting Married, Starting a Family

eTV presents a series of short films on the issues and concerns of women with disabilities in Armenia. The first in the series focuses on matters of private life, getting married, starting a family. 

Subsequent films will focus on issues women with disabilities in Armenia are confronted with when seeking medical services and in the education system. 

Note, film in Armenian only. Translation in English below the video.

Special thanks to sign language interpreter and teacher Zubeyda Melikyan for her assistance. 

Stereotypes in Society

"I become disabled when I encounter problems in society. If those problems aren't there, I'm not disabled; I don't feel my disability," says Arev Melqonyan, in the opening of the film.

"Slightly more than 186,000 people with disabilities live in Armenia. Of these, 89,000 [48%] are women," says Lusine Saghumyan, co-founder of Social Participation and Assistance Center for Equality (SPACE) NGO, adding that women are doubly discriminated, especially in Armenian, patriarchal society where the primary decision-makers are men. Lusine adds that in Armenia, girls with disabilities are dropped off in orphanages more than boys with disabilities because male children are more valued than female children. 

Arev, who works at Bridge of Hope NGO, describes how when she had surgery to remove a cyst, she had to go see a gynecologist. The gynecologist was surprised that a women with a physical disability had a need for a gynecologist, assuming that women like Arev don't lead sexual lives (and consequently, assuming that only women with active sexual lives need to see a gynecologist). 

She says how women with disabilities are told by family and society to forget about getting married and starting a family. "Who's going to even look at you and then for you to get married?" she says is a crude expression that she's heard. She confesses that her grandmother has told her this.

Gohar Navasardyan, who works at the Ministry of Emergency Situations of the Republic of Armenia while studying at Yerevan State University, said the ministry launched a program last year to employ people with disabilities, particularly those with mobility issues (especially wheelchair users like Gohar). She says there are currently 26 people with disabilities employed at the ministry — all are wheelchair users. 

Asked about her relationship with her colleagues who do not have disabilities, Gohar said initially, they were unable to interact comfortably "which I consider normal — I don't know why that is, perhaps because of the stereotypes that exist in our society, that interaction with a person with a disability is difficult, that they get offended by the slightest thing," but later they became friends. 

Arev says it is society that fosters stereotypes of people with disabilities. 

On Marriage

Lusine, Arev, and Gohar all said that men with disabilities get married more often than women with disabilities — and they often marry a person who does not have a disability. Thus, women are doubly marginalized.

"If 10 years ago I was told that a female wheelchair user was married to a man without a disability, or the opposite, I would think this is from a film or book, or someone saw it in a dream […] since I was using a wheelchair and it was new for me [Gohar began using a wheelchair 10 years ago], it was unacceptable, I was unable to get accustomed to it… along with all that, marriage I would definitely consider a myth. But now I consider it more real[istic]," says Gohar, adding that society has changed and is more accepting of such "mixed marriages". 

Arev, in turn, said: "Women with disabilities always encounter the issue of starting a family because in Armenian society men are weaker than women (in terms of will) because if a woman without a disability loves a man with a disability, she won't care what society says and she will go against even her family to be with the man she loves […] However, a man without a disability is weaker. Maybe one man in a thousand is bold enough to go against society and his family to have a woman with a disability as his wife." Arev speaks from personal experience. She had a boyfriend, but the relationship ended because her partner didn't or couldn't, she says, go against his family to defend his relationship with Arev. And though he wanted to continue their relationship until his family came around, Arev ended it, saying, "I don't want a weak person."

She says she's not seeing anyone now and isn't thinking about it, though she loves children, which is why that even if she doesn't get married, she will have children.

On Starting a Family

Greta Avagyan: "Yes, I want to start a family like anyone else. I know that when I grow up, I definitely will start a family and have children. I don't know, it might be 10 years later, but I want to. To be able to cherish children, pass on a mother's love. I want to pass on what I learned and the same love I received from my mother to my children […] Yes, I also want to become a mother. Yes I really want to get married and have children."

Greta says when she was young, she was afraid, "as if my parents' fear had passed on to me," but now that she's older, seeing and becoming acquainted with other deaf people, she is no longer afraid. She says she doesn't think about whether her future child will be deaf or not — it doesn't matter to her. "What's important is for the child to grow up healthy, and society to accept him or her as a healthy person, to accept him or her as she is," she says, adding: "Everyone thinks I'm disabled. I'm not disabled. I'm like you. I simply can't hear. I don't understand why you don't accept us."

Gohar recently participated in a dance performance involving people with disabilities and those without disabilities (professional dancers). She describes the vehement reaction she received from others when she said she was going to be in a dance performance. 

On the Future

Arev: "I don't believe in dreams, though I'm told I'm a bit of a romantic [laughs]. But really, I don't have dreams. I have specific goals, and at different stages of my life I always reach my goals. But let's dream for a bit. 5–10 years down the road, I'm thinking, we won't encounter these specific problems that we have now in Armenia. There will be problems, but in a different area. Not in that area where the emphasis is placed on disability, especially if you're a girl with a disability, then you have to do nothing — simply live, breathe, and eat and that's all."