December 16, 2013
LICHK — In the family bedroom, Lilith is asleep in the crib. There are no teddy bears or toys within reach, but on her belly a photo album moves up and down with her breathing. Inside are pictures of her father, Aram. The child asked to see them to remember his face, his dark eyes and his comforting smile. For the past six months, the 3-year-old girl and her two older siblings have seen him only in photographs or on the small screen of their mother Anouch’s cellphone.
In Lichk, an Armenian village located next to Lake Sevan, Aram Harutiunian was a boxing coach until his first daughter’s birth in 2005. That year, he packed his bags and set off for Russia.
“I used to earn 20,000 drams (around $55) per month,” he explains over the phone. “I couldn’t feed my family on that wage.”
Between March and October, the boxing champion now lays stone and pavement on Moscow’s roads and builds houses and buildings. He is not alone. Just like him, other inhabitants of the village and of the region — farmers, drivers, bankers, builders, school principals and even orchestra directors — have reinvented themselves as masons for the insatiable Russian industry.
Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, hundreds of thousands of Armenians have followed this economic exodus. In Lichk and in the whole Martuni province, solutions had to be found after production units were dismantled and regional businesses were shut down. So, instead of leaving to work in Yeveran, the Armenian capital, and spend a poor salary for an overpriced and narrow apartment, they followed the example of a few elderly locals, who decades ago set off to earn money in Siberia, Georgia or wherever the share of the Soviet cake was larger..
Lichk — Photo: Travis K. Witt
And now, income in Russia can be three times higher than at home. “In Russia, I earn a lot more in three months than in 10 months here,” a young Armenian explains.
As a result, no fewer than 90% of working-aged men in Lichk actually live abroad, mostly in Russia or Ukraine, from spring to fall. This is visible from one side of the village to the other, to the extent that the itinerant traders sell barely any men clothes.
A lonely life
“Being able to adapt to everything is essential,” Anouch Harutiunian sighs, her tone made hazy by a cold. It has been 10 years since the young woman settled in Aram’s parents’ house, joined five years later by her sister-in-law Ruzanna, whose taxi-driver husband took the Slav direction before the couple even had the chance to celebrate their first wedding anniversary.
Eight months out of 12 the two sisters-in-law share the only two family bedrooms with their five children. The only man in the house is their father-in-law Never, who has become taciturn because of this endless crisis that has already taken three sons, one daughter, all his son-in-laws and a few brothers-in-law away from him.
Because they stayed in the village, the women have become guardians of heritage and the heads of these disrupted families. They have to raise the children and take care of the elderly by themselves.
“The women take on everything that concerns the specific village life, including work we used to do as a family,” Mayor Lionel Grigoryan says. This is true even for tasks that traditionally fall to the men — making hay, piling stacks, moving cinder blocks or selling animals at the market. And, of course, they also take care of the household tasks traditionally attributed to mothers and daughters here. It’s “a hard time,” they all agree.
In these conditions, why don’t they follow their husbands? “What’s the point of leaving everything behind just to end up paying a rent and not be able to get by?” one of the women asks. “I can’t bring myself to leave my village permanently,” another says. “My husband tells me Russia is a dangerous place,” a third woman explains.
For Anouch Harutiunian, these arguments hide a completely different reality: “Some men don’t want their wives to discover the kind of life they live over there, or are afraid that they would do the same. They send money to their wives so they don’t ask questions.”
This tall brunette with romantic spit curls has long since lost the naivete behind which other women hide to accept the harshness of their daily lives. Her biting remarks reveal weariness and a lack of emotional affection. Even if Anouch and her sister-in-law are convinced that their husbands are “different from the others,” the known infidelity of cousins and neighbors makes them cautious. “We know nothing of what they do over there,” Anouch says. “We trust them, but doubt always exists.”
Lichk's S. Astvatsatsin church — Photo: Travis K. Witt
Healer Emma Balabekyan jokes around with her friends about their lives. “There’s no risk here, there are only old men,” she says. On the living room couch, three generations of women burst out laughing. “We can’t always be stressed. That’s why we joke around so much,” says a woman named Nvard.
This relaxed atmosphere clashes with the austerity of the dark living room, where the walls are covered with religious icons and a portrait of the healer’s deceased husband. Candles, crucifixes, mystical recitations and holy water are part of the rite that, for lack of other moral support, helps relieve pain and neurosis.
These days, however, the household is busy harvesting the vegetable patch. Like everywhere else in the village, the family has started harvesting to can before their husbands return home. “It’s the hardest period of the year because we have to prepare for winter,” says Ruzanna Harutiunian. “We don’t have a single minute to ourselves. We’re robots,” Anouch adds.
Bearing the marks of their condition
At ages 25 and 30, the two women already bear marks of their harsh lives. Their bodies are as thin as marathon runners’, their backs more painful than warehouse workers’, and their hands red and swollen from manual labor. At home, the children grow up without a father. Sahak, Anouch’s son, did not even recognize his father the last time Aram returned to the village. He thought he was his uncle. “That day, I saw my husband cry,” she remembers.
This year, she spent 150,000 drams ($400) for her three children to return to school, which is very formal in Armenia. “If one day I’m not able to buy things for them, it would be horrible for me,” she says. At school too, the consequences of paternal absence — which concerns 80% of the pupils — is also evident.
“When they get to fifth grade, boys don’t want to study anymore,” the teacher says. “In the most concerning cases, we call the father in Russia to tell him his son isn’t behaving properly,” the deputy director adds. “It’s the parents’ job to punish them. If the fathers were there, there would be no problem.”
In eastern Armenia — Photo: Shaun Dunphy
Some high school students don’t even wait until after graduation anymore to leave to join the ranks of the “asphalt builders” abroad. They go back there as soon as they finish their military service, then between two university years, if they get the chance to study.
Of course, emigration does help the village in many ways. At the top of the hill, in the soft light of dusk, are a large group of houses that, 50 years ago, were a lot smaller. Now, a new neighborhood has emerged. The residents have named it “Putingrad” because it was built with money earned in Russia. These last few years, the houses have been getting bigger and more abundant. The houses’ interiors have more and more electrical appliances too. Teenagers strut around in their father’s Jeep. Lichk will soon have its own cultural center and its church, paid for by the villagers.
The village’s whole economy has now come to rely on these comings and goings: In the shops, debts and suppliers are paid at the end of the year, and the hairdresser’s and the restaurant make the most money during the four months the men are there. Women become pregnant when the fathers come home, and 80% of the children are born between July and December.
As for Aram Harutiunian, he has not been able to buy his wife a house yet. But it is their big plan. The couple has received 450,000 ($1,200) from the state for the birth of Lilith, their third child. With this money, they managed to get a bit closer to achieving their dream and are now saving dram after dram to build what Anouch calls their “own home.” She adds in a solemn tone: “It’s all we’re missing to finally give this life a meaning.”
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The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
October 19, 2021
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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