We must talk about equal opportunities

We must talk about equal opportunities

Zaruhi Batoyan

Our interviewee is Zaruhi Batoyan, the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs of RA. We talked to her about the journey from an activist to the first female minister with disabilities in Armenia, as well as about her operations in the social affairs framework.

Interview : Arshak Tovmasyan    Photo : Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs of RA

 

Mrs. Batoyan, you started as an activist, took part in the Velvet revolution, and today, you are a minister, one of the youngest and the only woman in the cabinet. Some people refuse to leave their homes; meanwhile, you became a minister. Where do you get this strength from?

If you imply my physical disability, considering it as an obstacle on my way, I have to say that there are many people who overcome various difficulties, become highly qualified professionals, and of course, there are many individuals who do not leave their homes, as they face many artificial barriers that have to be eliminated. Unfortunately, there aren’t many success stories, but I believe that I’m not the only one and I know a number of people who have managed to overcome these barriers.

The physical disability can stop a person if there are many external obstacles because the only thing which limits us is the environment, and in the opposite, the same environment can encourage our self-expression, help us find ourselves to have a contribution to this or that field. I’m lucky as I have a very supportive family and, also, all the spheres that I’ve entered created favorable conditions for my advancement.

 

Can we hope that very soon the life quality of people with disabilities in Armenia will improve?

I work towards that direction. To create conditions for everyone, despite their gender, physical abilities, and other circumstances, to provide them with decent life in Armenia. There is a lack of minimum conditions, a legislative gap and services. So, I work on this issue using the experience I’ve gained during the many years of work for the solution of this problem. Today, I try to turn that experience into policies and exact steps. I hope that I will have my contribution. Of course, I cannot do it by myself, but I will put all the efforts for the benefit of the situation.

 

What should we do to increase the number of women ministers?

First, there’s a need for vivid examples. We must talk a lot about equal opportunities and encourage girls and young women. There’s a need for reform in our education system in a way so there are no limitations and stereotypes. Do not give the roles in advance that, for example, women should get married, take care of the children and spend most of the time in the kitchen; meanwhile, men should go into politics, work and sustain the family. Also, we need to stop enforcing specific roles at an early age and do everything we can to help women develop, work and express themselves. I want to highlight the role of men in this process; as they say, women empowerment is beneficial not only for the women themselves but also for the whole society.

 

You were the editor of disabilityinfo.am and in addition to your experience, it also enabled you to address these issues with a systematic approach.

For many years, I have worked as an editor at “Sunflower” children’s magazine in the “Bridge of Hope” organization. Later on, I became the head of the union of legal entities “National Alliance for the Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities” and in the same period, my colleagues and I established the Disability Info NGO, with a website, operating as a news outlet, shedding light on the politics of the country. Here we tried to understand the level of integrity of the political processes of the country, whether the policies, initiatives and strategic decisions take into account the interests of people with disabilities. So, yes, the website helped to form an approach towards the issue, to carry out different relevant researches and collect data. Moreover, I’m very happy and proud that I stand at the foundation of this organization, and even today, the NGO (now called “Disability and Integrative Development”) and the website remain one of the best advocates of the human rights and integrative development of the people with disabilities.

 

You also have a literary past, but as I noticed you have stopped writing poetry since 2016. Don’t you miss it?

These days I try to write, sometimes and I really do miss it. I’ve published only one book, which I consider as a work of a beginner. However, writing is more of a view towards life for me, i.e., it’s a way of thinking and a state of mind. I write from time to time, but I wouldn’t call it poetry.

 

Getting back to your operations as a minister. What are the most severe challenges the ministry faces today?

It’s useless to say that there are many challenges as we work with the most vulnerable part of the society. First of all, we need to carry out some serious operations to accurately define the right target groups of the people and families who need the support, who appeared in the support system accidentally or in any other way. We have an objective to take people out of the institutions and ensure their prosperous life and integration within the communities. We have an important issue with the employment field, with the labor law and work realization. We have the problem of protecting people subjected to violence and preventing violence as well. Another challenge is the protection of children’s rights, the child adoption law.

But what’s important to note is that all our programs, policies and initiatives must be based on the human rights, and we must provide the right conditions, as people have the issue of practicing their fundamental rights; to live in a family, work and live a decent life.

 

Let’s go into the details of some of these issues. I liked the potential program of eliminating the orphanages. But it sounds too utopian, doesn’t it?

I think that at the initial stage one should look at all the programs and initiatives with a utopian view, as a dream and vision of what kind of country, what kind of Armenia we want to have. After which, of course, exact steps should be defined. I don’t consider this program unrealistic at all; on the contrary, I believe that we have serious potential, and cultural, human and financial resources to organize the life, politics, and conditions in the country in a way so that children remain in their families. No child should get into an orphanage due to health issues. No person should be isolated because he/she has this or that problem and has no access to the support services. No family should get separated from their child, thinking that it’s the best option for him/her and that they cannot provide their child with a decent life as they have no support. So, we have to address all these issues and I think that if we manage to create the minimum conditions, we will succeed.

We have the experience of an NGO – exclusively on a voluntary basis, only via creating a network of human resources, which has managed to keep over 170 children in their families for 2-3 years. They supported the families so that they wouldn’t hand over their children to the orphanages. I am talking about “Bari Mama” NGO. If this organization, via the help of the citizens and individual donors managed to do that, the government and the ministry can do it, too. We just have to take the success case and turn it into a systematic solution. I believe we will achieve our goal.

 

There are examples of other countries, where the solution to this issue followed the same path. However, when taking a more in-depth look at the experience of the states, there are many failures, for example, with the reintegration of those children when they turn 18. In Armenia, we have the same issue in the orphanages, especially for the girls. Did you think about it? Are there any solutions?

The programs should be intended to help not only at the financial level. First of all, we have to prevent the child from getting into the orphanage by supporting the family. If the child eventually gets into the orphanage, it is not the end as well. If he/she cannot return to his/her biological parents, we can organize the adoption of the child or the residence in a foster family. There are many options for the child to live in a family and receive warmth and love. However, in case all the above-mentioned options don’t work, we still have the opportunity to prepare the child in the orphanage to the life outside of its walls, to provide the child with quality education, assist in the choice of the professional path, so that after leaving the orphanage the person doesn’t face immediate difficulties. The programs should assist their stakeholders not only financially, by providing housing options, etc., but they should provide psychological support, help them find themselves in professional life. There are many ways to support these children, but unfortunately, I must admit that all these options are practiced in Armenia quite rarely. Success cases are very few, While systematic approach is the key to victory. Again, I  must refer to the example of the NGOs who have had success cases and have previously managed to accomplish this task in Armenia, even in the conditions we have.

 

On the one hand we are talking about such positive processes, but on the other hand, we have the issue with the expropriation of kindergartens. As a parent, I’m very concerned about this issue.

I’m not aware of this issue as it’s in the domain of the municipality, but here I would like to emphasize the issue of integrative approach in the kindergartens, as unfortunately, they are not available and accessible for every child but it would be easier to organize the integrative processes there, rather than in schools. The kindergartens are another way to keep the child in the family. During the meetings, one of the orphanage directors mentioned that vulnerable families usually hand over their children to the orphanages at the age of 0-3 years. To my question as to what the reason was behind that tendency, the director said that after the 3rd year the child can go to a kindergarten, so it becomes easier for the parents to take care of the baby. Therefore, kindergartens are another option of keeping the child in the family but the integrative process there should be accurately organized. There shouldn’t be a separate group for the children with disabilities in which case the children rarely interact with one another and only meet when going for a walk. The groups should be integrative, and if there’s a need for an additional specialist, we should provide one, and it doesn’t require significant financial investments.

 

Today, we have kindergartens both paid and free of charge, and the same is with the schools. I hope we won’t follow the path of having paid high quality kindergartens and schools and low quality public institutions. The integrative education adds up to that issue. Do you see a problem here? Don’t you think that we are going in that direction?

Not sure if the integrative education has something to do with that. However, we have the international practice of both public and private schools, and I think we must invest enough resources to provide a high quality education. Today, most of the schools in Armenia are public, and there are very few private ones, and the students in the universities are the graduates of these public schools. There’s the advantage of additional classes, but of course, the education sphere needs serious improvements.

I might sound pessimistic saying that this process is inevitable as the private schools are different and it is by inviting various professionals that those schools manage to ensure high quality. They also manage to pay high salaries to those specialists, meanwhile the public schools have a specific budget and payment standards. In this sense, they will distinguish from one another. But I wouldn’t say that we face huge risks as the majority of the schools are public and our social conditions are in a state that will last for a long time. The question here is a little bit different. The education attracts not only with its information and knowledge provided but also with the methodology, which is very important. Moreover, it is possible to ensure the attractiveness of education without any expensive reforms, with interactive methods, with the inclusion of innovative approaches. All this can help us have maximum results with minimum expenses.

 

After the revolution, people asked one another when the pensions would be raised. I want to talk about the vulnerable groups, about the pensioners, and to understand the vision of our country and the ministry. How do they envision the improvement of the life quality of those people?

Actually, the pension has slightly increased since January the 1st and I must mention that today the pensions in Armenia, and in the world, in general, are intended to satisfy the minimal needs of the person. Unfortunately, in Armenia the pension doesn’t match the actual income of the person and here the accumulative pension can be helpful, which in the future will ensure the decent retirement of the elderly people. However, today, I think that everyone understands the situation and that the solution depends on many factors. The Labor and Social Affair Ministry is not the only responsible here. Yes, we make suggestions, and we will continue proposing an increase in pensions, but this issue also depends on the economic welfare of the country, on the minimizing of corruption risks and the improvement in targeting. However, here I would like to mention something which might not be directly connected to the financial resources but remains quite essential. I’m talking about the capability of listening to people and of understanding their needs. We receive many request letters from people who ask for meetings. From my experience, most of them just need to be heard; when you reply to their request with care, and it might sound sentimental, but yes, the letter can make the citizen feel that you care about their issue, you might not be able to provide an immediate solution to it, but they feel that you accommodate them because people need to be heard and need a respectful and caring attitude towards their issue. This is the minimum we can give, and from my experience, it changes a lot. From the other side, I think that another way of solving the problem is the accessibility of the information. Most of the time the citizens are simply unaware of the initiatives by the ministries and other governmental bodies. There are many good ideas and projects which can benefit the citizens, but they don’t know about them, and the institutions fail to provide accurate information to the society. Here we also have some important task, and it’s not a coincidence that we emphasize the provision of the information and try to fill in this informative gap via the social media and meetings.