The First Decade: Laying the Foundations (1991-2000)
AIWA was established in the aftermath of the catastrophic 1988 earthquake and massive independence campaign in Armenia and in the shadow of the women’s movement in the United States. Three women – Eva Medzorian, Barbara Merguerian, and Olga Proudian – all living in the Boston area, with different backgrounds, interests, and personalities — came together in a common realization that the time had come for Armenian women to become more closely involved in our international communities. They were not aware of a single Armenian independent, nonpolitical, non-sectarian organization run by women and devoted to the particular interests and concerns of women. Thus, after a series of meeting during 1990, culminating in a symposium at Wellesley College in December of that year, the Armenian International Women’s Association was officially incorporated in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in March, 1991.
With the goal of bringing Armenian women together, the fledgling AIWA explored diverse programs at first. At the Wellesley College Symposium we had met Judge Y. Gladys Barsamian, of the Wayne County Michigan Probate Court, and Sara Harder, of the Women’s Consortium at the University of Wisconsin Au-Clair. A Health Care Forum attracted a large audience. We also enjoyed social events; an evening with comedienne Andrea Martin, accompanied by pianist Al Vega, was a major hit. A key networking tool was not long in appearing; under the capable direction of Alice K. Mirak, our first directory was published in 1992: Armenian Women at Work, in Business, the Professions, Community Service, and the Arts. Publication of the AIWA Newsletter had already commenced in 1991.
The difficult conditions faced by our sisters and their families in Armenia during the 1990’s could not escape our attention, and AIWA organized many informational sessions about life in Armenia. The neglect of women’s health issues in Armenia over a period of years was striking, leading to AIWA’s first major initiative in Yerevan — support for a program to enable top doctors from Harvard Medical School to travel to Yerevan to train medical personnel at the Women’s Reproductive Health Center there. The doctors were willing to donate their time, but funds were needed for their travel costs. AIWA’s early efforts in Armenia earned us an award for humanitarian assistance from the First Lady of Armenia, Lucia Ter Petrossian when she visited the Boston area in 1994.
Establishing AIWA’s Place in the World
In 1993, AIWA hosted a luncheon to honor Armenia’s first Ambassador to the United States, Rouben Shugarian, and his wife Lilit; the next year, AIWA honored Baroness Caroline Cox for her humanitarian activities in Armenia and elsewhere. During these nascent years, AIWA had been reaching out to women in different countries when, largely through the efforts of Mary V. Toumayan, AIWA was accepted as a Non-Government Organization (NGO) at the United Nations in New York. (AIWA upgraded our UN membership to the Economic and Social Council in 1996.). Mary served capably as our Chief UN Representative until her death in 2014.
One of the outstanding early events of AIWA was the first international conference in London in 1994. Conference Chair Dr. Agnes K. Missirian, Professor of Management at Bentley College, put together a strong committee that was able to plan and organize three exhilarating and exciting days of lectures, workshops, discussions, and meetings centering on the status of Armenian women, our shared heritage, and future prospects. A generous grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation had enabled a delegation of 12 women to attend from Armenia, greatly enriching the discussions. The London conference was the catalyst for the formation of our first affiliate, AIWA – Los Angeles.
A short three years later in 1997, AIWA’s second international conference in Paris, provided another unforgettable experience.
The Second Decade: Expanding in the New Millennium
The new century saw a continuation of earlier activities and an expansion into new areas. Our first scholarship, named in honor of Agnes K. Missirian, had been established in 1997, and now scholarships were established in memory of Rose “Azad” Hovannesian, Lucy Kasparian Aharonian, Zarouhi Y. Getsoyan, and Ethel Jafferian Duffett, along with annual scholarships established by Dr. Carolann S. Najarian.
During this period our publishing and archives activities also expanded. In what was to become a major AIWA initiative, AIWA’s Annual Meeting in 2002 established, with enthusiastic approval, an innovative project presented by San Francisco Affiliate member Thelma Tajirian to help women in Armenian advance by engaging in small business activity. The Women’s Entrepreneurship Project, in cooperation with the American University of Armenia, continues and now has over 200 graduates (2015). With a focus on practical skills such as creating a small business plan, the program also works on building self-esteem and fostering a sense of empowerment.
Major interest continued in AIWA’s international conferences and the 2000 conference in Yerevan was AIWA’s the best attended, with many attendees in awe of their surroundings at the historic former Parliament Building. The 2004 conference in Geneva, welcomed the charming First Lady of Lebanon, Andrée Emile Lahoud, as the keynote speaker. (Geneva Conference Coordinator Taline Avakian and Armenia’s Representative to the United Nations in Geneva Zohrab Mnatsakanian helped to plan the conference program as well as special events.) The 2008 conference in Buenos Aires, along with the usual panels and workshops, provided an opportunity become acquainted with the life and culture of the thriving Armenian community there. A highlight of this conference occurred when special guest Rakel Dink, widow of the slain Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, was presented with an AIWA Humanitarian Award. Later in the year a reception for Mrs. Dink was held by AIWA in Boston.
Meeting New Challenges
A new initiative adopted in 2010 was designed to address violence against women in Armenia. AIWA became a founding donor for the Women’s Support Center (WSC), based in Yerevan. The Women’s Support Center, conceived by the Tufenkian Foundation, received its initial funding in 2010 from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), matching funds from AIWA and the Tufenkian Foundation. AIWA continues to support for WSC as one of our AIWA-wide initiatives.
International Conferences have continued including our first conference in the United States. In San Francisco in 2011, we again felt the magic that occurs when Armenian women from various parts of the world come together, and we were mesmerized by the remarkable keynote address by the California Congresswoman Jackie Kanchelian Speier. AIWA returned to Yerevan in 2014 for our seventh international conference, where AIWA was supported by local sponsors: the Ministry of the Diaspora and the American University of Armenia. Our participants were presented a new perspective on the history of Armenian women by two Turkish authors from Istanbul: attorney and human rights activist Fethiye Cetin and sociologist from the faculty of Sabanci University Ayse Gül Altinay, coauthors of The Grandchildren: The Hidden Legacy of “Lost” Armenians in Turkey, about Armenians taken into Muslim households and converted to Islam during and after the Armenian Genocide. With the usual jam-packed program over three days, we were brought up-to-date on several aspects of women’s lives in Armenia and the diaspora and were treated to the usual spectacular Armenian hospitality.
AIWA and AIWA Affiliates continued hosting cultural activities and events through the years, often partnering with other Armenian organizations who support AIWA’s mission including the Armenian Museum of America, the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, and the Armenian Cultural Foundation. For the 2015 commemoration of the Armenian Genocide AIWA presented a special production of “Women of Ararat,” a play by AIWA member Judith Boyajian, at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown. Two performances were enthusiastically supported by Armenians and non-Armenians alike.
25 Years Old: Looking to Our Future
AIWA continues to adapt to the changing needs of Armenian women. With our global community, we are developing new technological tools to respond to our ability to cross boundaries and time zones easily. AIWA connects women and the technology of today will help us connect to each other year-round. Nothing will replace our international conferences and our gatherings to support and highlight all Armenian women. AIWA continues to depend on our members, supporters and friends to help us fulfill our mission. As we move forward, AIWA will continue to implement the changes we need to highlight and support Armenian women. In 2015, AIWA engaged Jennifer C. Phillips as our (part-time) executive director. Jennifer has made a major contribution in her work with our affiliates and in exploring ways to modernize our operations. AIWA is reaching out to everyone who supports the advancement of Armenian women. We know that when women are supported, everyone benefits. AIWA is extremely fortunate to have a cadre of younger and experienced women working together to offer new perspectives for our future, to use technologies to pursue our goals, and to coordinate the tremendous potential of Armenian women – indeed of all women – to make the world a better place for all peoples.