Every year unemployment and poverty force Armenians to leave, seeking work abroad, mainly to Russia. The migration has deeply shaped the country’s population and the traditional Armenian family – it is men setting off, leaving wives and children behind. Entire villages end up populated by women who raise children often conceived during their husbands’ visits. Some of them never return, simply vanishing. Most come back, bringing with them the scars of long periods away - including sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and HIV, which will then transfer onto their wives.
Migration is a nationwide plague. The province of Gegharkunik, in eastern Armenia on the border with Azerbaijan, has one of the country’s highest rates of men packing up for seasonal work abroad, mainly in the construction sector in Russia - about 14.7 percent of its 231,800 inhabitants are migrant workers. A report published in 2015 showed that the husbands of 44 percent of ever-married women work or have worked abroad versus a national average of 25 percent.
In 2014, the National Centre for AIDS Prevention started to provide periodic anonymous testing of HIV, hepatitis B and C in the villages across the region, explained Melanya Geveorgyan, 61, the director of the ambulance in the village of Sarukhan. All information is confidential, and the clinic does not have the number of infected people, but “if the organization continues the testing it means that a health issue exists,” she maintains.
Statistics are almost non existent, but estimates point that 50 percent of HIV cases in Armenia are found among circular migrants.
As women live a half-life, their health ends up being affected as well - adding stigma to the loneliness.
Artsvanist, a village of 3,060 residents on the southern shore of Lake Sevan, has one of the highest percentage of labor migration villages in Gegharkunik province.
Tatevik Hovhannisyan, 34, in the fields with her son Karen. Tatevik lives alone with her son, daughter and mother-in-law between spring and autumn - her husband has been a seasonal worker in Russia for over 15 years.
Varduhi Badalyan and Harut Toroyan in a photograph from their wedding in 2011. Varduhi, 25, lives alone with their two daughters, her mother-in-law, and her husband’s grandmother of the year, as her husband leaves every May and returns in late November. He has not been present at the birth of either child.
Varduhi with newly-born Mane, her second girl. Varduhi says that she would prefer to have her husband with her now, when their children are young. “Who needs [a father] after 20 years.”
An array of fluffy toys at Varduhi’s house. Like many others, her children were conceived during their father’s visits.
The family doctor visits newborn Mane.
Sheep in Dprabak, a village of less than 1,000 people in Gegharkunik.
Haying in Yereanos, Gegharkunik province. Left behind, yet not abandoned therefore not free, women raise the children their husbands often barely know and take on their shoulders hard farming work.
Mariam Chatikyan, 46. For the last ten years her husband has been commuting between Sarukhan and Russia where he heads every spring in search of seasonal work, despite his 2nd level disability. Education is key for women, she maintains, and is committed to do her best to provide full education to her 13-year-old daughter.
Hripsime Hovhannisyan lives in Artsvanist with her two daughters Termine and Hermine, of four years and nine months. When she married at 18, her husband was already working in Russia between April and November. Her two pregnancies were difficult - now 23 she is not strong enough to sustain another one.
This young woman found out she was HIV positive when she was expecting her second child. She contracted the infection from her husband who used to work in Russia. Once married, he migrated again but irregularly. As she was the target of her husband’s violence, she left, and lives alone now with two children, struggling with poverty and stigma.
A large, expensive house with an on-site small chapel stands out in rural Yereanos. The owners migrated to, and settled in, Russia, and return to the native village just a few weeks every year. Building sophisticated houses is one of the priorities of those who managed to get on more remunerative jobs - it is a sign of wealth and status.
A laptop in Khathun Jamharyan's house. Computers are increasingly popular in rural houses as new technologies ensure regular communication between labor migrants and their families.
Gohar Toroyan, 21, married in early 2017, and got pregnant one month after the wedding. Her husband left for work three months after they tied the knot. Marriages are common in winter in the region Gegharkunik as labor migrants return home. And there is time to get pregnant up to the spring.
Khathun Jamharyan, 32, with her father-in-law Suren, in Yeranos. Khathun has taken on her shoulders both the farming work and the chores at home. Her husband comes and goes, but someone has to keep the house going.