armenia nagorno karabakh abortion lgbtq rights
A woman teaches cardiac massage techniques to rescue babies during a first aid training session in Yerevan in July this year. Photo: Astrig Agopian/Getty Images

A ‘Frozen War’ in Europe Threatens Sex, Abortion and LGBTQ Rights

Armenian authorities are officially pro-choice but also desperately want to increase the country's birth rate to create more soldiers to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh.

YEREVAN, Armenia – There haven’t been any attacks at the Women’s Resource Center’s new address – at least, not yet. Anush Poghosyan, who leads the sexual and reproductive health project for the NGO, told VICE News that physical attacks were frequent before they moved to another location in the capital. 

Human rights groups fighting for better sexual and reproductive health rights, including the Women’s Resource Center, have told VICE News they are experiencing increased levels of targeted harassment for the work that they do. Poghosyan said she has been asked “Why are you destroying our families?” at women’s marches, and at one event, after her organisation had translated a book for parents to speak to children about sex education, around 20 people unhappy with the book’s content arrived to throw eggs.


Rights including access to contraception and abortion or acceptance for LGBTQ identities in Armenia are often caught between the country’s many other social issues. A blockade continues in Nagorno-Karabakh where Azerbaijan took control of surrounding territory in a six-week war with Armenia in 2020; residents there are running out of food, fuel and medical supplies. Then there is the rural poverty, the mass emigration, and the ongoing influence from Russia as a post-Soviet state. 

Armenia doesn’t have an anti-discrimination law that would protect individuals if attacked or treated unfairly on the basis of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Abortion is legal and accessible in Armenia, as it is in most post-Soviet states, but Poghosyan described the government as “pro choice, but pro natalist.” Fewer abortions and more births means more soldiers for what the government sees as an inevitable future of conflict. Even a local campaign to stop sex-selective abortions, in which many Armenian families have historically aborted female foetuses, used the tagline, “Don’t kill future mothers.”


A militiaman wears a bullet that once wounded him during a previous conflict with Azerbaijan. Photo: CANOVAS Alvaro / Contributor

“Post-war, the government only cares about pregnancy,” Poghosyan told VICE News at her new office in Yerevan. “The narrative is that they want soldiers, that they want to protect the land.” In 2016, Armenia’s abortion law was amended to introduce a three-day waiting period for women who wanted an abortion after consulting with their doctor. Meanwhile, incentives to have children have accelerated; in January the Armenian government announced it would be increasing its IVF support by 40 percent to 917 million drams ($2.3 million) “to override infertility and include new groups of beneficiaries.” 


The same law change that curtailed abortion rights in 2016 was also designed to try and curb sex-selective abortions; at the time, Armenia had the third-highest rate of abortion of female foetuses in the world, behind China and Azerbaijan. But Poghosyan said she believes that not only is any abortion limit a possible rights infringement, it isn’t actually working. She hears regular reports of women getting around the law change by simply stating that they have a different reason for aborting the foetus. 2022 data is still showing a higher than average ratio for births between boys and girls, according to a UN survey, which also revealed that cultural attitudes clearly remain powerful. While only 18 percent of respondents said that boys were preferred in their close family, 53 percent of them believed that boy children would be preferred among surrounding people.

It’s against this backdrop that the Women’s Resource Center, one of Armenia’s most prominent women’s rights organisations, has had to seek out security support to continue working because of the increasing backlash against their support of reproductive rights. Beyond the physical abuse and attacks at public events, they are regularly targeted online and have had their website on sexuality education reported to the police as a pornography site. The police told the centre that they wouldn’t be able to do anything about the individuals who reported the site as there was no evidence. “We would constantly do reports, but after this response, there’s no sense,” Poghosyan said. 


Women’s rights groups in Armenia work closely with LGBTQ organisations, co-organising marches and street protests. Mamikon Hovsepyan, communications director of Pink Armenia, said he related to Poghosyan’s experiences of harassment. “There is a lot of misinformation about our activities,” he said. “They think we’re trying to change their kids’ sexuality. To make them all gay or trans. So there is this kind of ideology of family values and traditional values and for them we are breaking those values and families,” he told VICE News over a video call.

In the latest ILGA-Europe ranking of the most LGBTQ friendly countries in Europe, Armenia languishes at the bottom of the list, one step behind Russia and only marginally better than Turkey and Azerbaijan. Pink Armenia’s work in fighting for greater freedom as well as legal and psychological support for Armenia’s LGBTQ community is often targeted. In terms of online abuse, Hovsepyan said “both anonymous and identifiable individuals freely send abuse, they think they are doing the right thing to protect the Armenian identity.” Last August, a man filmed himself beating up a trans woman and uploaded it online, where it was celebrated by a militarist YouTube channel called “Army of Light” which said the assailant was “awarded a gratitude award by the Army of Light because by battering a trans person, he had committed a patriotic act.” Hovsepyan said that the attacker had still not been punished for his actions. 


While it’s clear many individuals in the country have no qualms claiming that feminism is wrong, or that LGBTQ people are destroying Armenian values, both Poghosyan and Hovsepyan said they believe coordinated efforts from well-resourced groups are part of the escalation of hateful rhetoric. Poghosyan recalled a group of lawyers who tried unsuccessfully to remove Armenia’s right to abortion in legislation in 2021; their links and name are the Armenian translation of “right to life,” a common name for anti-abortion groups around the world. 

A woman mourns at the grave of a relative killed in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Photo: Diego Herrera/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

A woman mourns at the grave of a relative killed in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Photo: Diego Herrera/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

When asked about groups he believed were pushing hateful rhetoric about the LGBTQ community, Hovsepyan named the Pan-Armenian Parents Committee, which in 2017 helped block new legislation on combating domestic violence because it was a “dangerous attack” on family values. “Their agenda was drawn mostly in Russia, and we found they had similar committees in Ukraine, Moldova, Eastern Europe,” he said. “They were all sharing the same ideology, same statements, in some cases it was in Russian. They hadn’t even bothered to translate to Armenian. Some time after, they started to change their name, they created some other foundations and NGOs with different names.” 

He also mentioned VETO, an anti-government political organisation, the founder of which Narek Malyan said in 2020 that “the agents of oligarch George Soros” have been “preaching LGBT,” to which Pink Armenia responded saying that VETO was attempting to portray the LGBTQ community as a “conspiratorial anti-government programme.” Another NGO, Kamq, said during the same year that a European convention aimed at protecting children against sexual exploitation “opens the door for Sorosian LGBT people and other NGOs alike to sneak into our schools, hospitals and even law enforcement agencies to force perversion in our society.”


That the LGBTQ community is portrayed as anti-Armenian has not been helped by the ongoing conflict in the region. “There is a narrative that gay men do not go to the army, they do not protect the land. We are seen as a group of privileged people always demanding equality,” Hovsepyan said. 

Those who inform the army that they are gay are exempt from serving in it. But many take advantage of an unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and fight without ever disclosing their orientation. Pink Armenia has tried to tell their stories, but finding the voices is hard. In their last video, the soldier they spoke to had to be completely anonymised for their safety. 

Until cultural attitudes change in Armenia, and until the conflict stops, human rights defenders are finding that progress behind the scenes is one of the only solutions when their agenda seems totally deprioritised and even shunned by the government. A previous ban for gay men on donating blood was silently lifted in December because of conversations behind closed doors Pink Armenia had with officials. Away from the public eye, Hovsepyan has found that the government can be flexible. “We didn’t need to send those changes to Parliament,” he said. 

And Poghosyan is finding that abortion access may be expanded with doctors before legislators. Doctors and gynaecologists now receive sexual health training from the Women’s Resource Center. In 2022, 204 of them from across Armenia were trained to become advocates for reproductive health. 

In one rural hospital, she found stacks of condoms in a reception area with seemingly no takers. When she asked for some, the receptionist loudly announced “10 condoms for Anush Poghosyan” to the entire waiting area. 

“They might have had a brochure and condoms,” Poghosyan said, “but now we have trained them in confidentiality.”