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Armenia migration: The villages of women left behind

Women in Dzoragyugh herding cattle or on their way to work in the fields Source: BBC

Armenia migration: The villages of women left behind

In many rural areas of the former Soviet Union, poverty and unemployment are forcing people to leave.

But in Armenia it is men who are going, leaving whole villages almost entirely populated by women.

Here in the Armenian village of Dzoragyugh, it is often only women and children you will see working in the fields.

That is because the only way for men to earn enough money to support their families is to go to Russia.

One of those left behind is Milena Kazaryan, a mother-of-two in her twenties.

As she tills the land behind her house, she tells me that her husband is working in Moscow - as are her father, her grandfather and all her brothers. In fact, all the men in her family have left.

Fears of second families

Ms Kazaryan smiles a lot. But she says what worries her and her friends, is that their husbands will set up second families in Russia. Something which happens a lot, she says.

All we want is jobs in Armenia so that our families can stay together and so that fathers can see their children grow up”

"All of the women are really scared. We phone every morning and every evening, to find out what our husbands are up to.

Will he come back or not?

"It's always really stressful wondering whether he'll come back or not. A lot of the women here worry because they think that in Russia all the girls are beautiful. And the problem is that the men work very hard so of course they also want to relax. That's why they're scared."

Ms Kazaryan says the husbands of many of her friends now have second families in Russia.

Men get Russian girlfriends

"Even if they have little children, men leave their wives and get Russian girlfriends but when they are old and they can't work anymore, they come back here," she says.

Ms Kazaryan and her husband married five years ago. Since then he has spent most of the year working in Russia. Like many Armenians there, he comes back for Christmas, and leaves again in March.

So it is hard to keep the family together.

Transfer of HIV

Women here say that almost all of the men from this village have gone to work in Russia. Leaving women to do everything - including the heavy labour, usually seen as men's work.

And certainly when you walk round the villages in this region, it is women you see herding cattle, on their way to the fields with tools in their hands or carrying bales of hay on their backs - there are very few men.

But the burden is also psychological, says Ilona Ter-Minasyan, the head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Armenia's capital Yerevan. Women have to also now make all the decisions - a source of conflict in this rural, patriarchal society.

"Eventually it leads to shifted gender roles because, while he's out for eight or nine months, she's head of the household."

There are also other more fatal issues, says Ms Ter-Minasyan.

"Armenia has a very small population of people who are HIV-positive. But recent surveys show that very often, large percentages of them are labour migrants who go to the Russian Federation, become HIV-positive, come back, and then transfer the disease to their wives. This is the worst-case scenario."

Birthrates 'too low'

Human rights groups accuse the government of not doing enough to tackle the problem of emigration.

But Gagik Yeganyan, head of the Armenian government's department for migration, says the only solution is to increase the number of jobs, rather than set up any specific programme. And that this is something not just the government, but the whole of society, including the media, should work towards.

Emigration a National Disaster

Human rights activists have called emigration a national disaster

Officially unemployment is around 7% but the IOM says benefits are so low that most people do not register as unemployed. So the real figure is estimated to be around 30%.

According to human rights groups and opposition parties this means that every year almost 100,000 people leave - most of them men, who go to neighbouring Russia to work in the construction industry there.

A million Armenians living in Russia

The government denies that the figures are so high. But there is general agreement that around a million Armenians are now living in Russia - leaving only three million still in Armenia.

This is a fall of 25% since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when around four million people lived in Armenia.

There are now calls for the Armenian authorities to act: in July human rights activists sent an open letter to the government, calling emigration a national disaster.

Girls are growing up with no chance of getting married

One of the authors of the letter is Karine Danelyan. She says that the lack of men is starting to be felt throughout society.

"It's a really serious problem. There's a new generation of girls growing up who have no chance of getting married because all the boys are leaving the country. So birthrates here in Armenia are now too low to keep the population stable."

But back in the village of Dzoragyugh, Ms Kazaryan's concerns are more immediate.

"It's really tough because the whole family is just waiting and waiting for the men to come back.

All we want is jobs in Armenia so that our families can stay together and so that fathers can see their children grow up.

A family is more than just the mum. We need the dads here too."