“My girls are my miracles”

Two families defy the traditional preference for sons in Armenia

Angela Hawke
Mkrtich Hovhannisyan, 44, and his wife Hasmik Badalyan, 46, with their four daughters in Gavar, Armenia
UNICEF/UNI222214/Babajanyan VII Photo
06 March 2020

Armenia has one of the world’s highest rates of gender-biased sex selection (GBSS) – preventing the birth of a child of the ‘undesirable’ gender. Girls are literally missing from families, classrooms and communities. Over the past seven years, an estimated 4,000 girls who would have been born in Armenia were not, due to a persistent preference for sons. That represents 4,000 losses – of life, of opportunities, and of potential.

But things may be starting to change. Mkrtich Hovhannisyan, from Gavar, and Harutyun Darbinyan, from Yerevan, are both the proud fathers of four daughters. They share a strong belief that a child is a child, and have ignored pressures to boost their chances of having sons. Both men know that these pressures can be relentless.

Mkrtich with his third daughter Nelly, at their home in Gavar, Armenia
UNICEF/UNI222211/Babajanyan VII Photo
Mkrtich with his third daughter Nelly, at their home in Gavar, Armenia

Mkrtich Hovhannisyan, aged 44, is a radio technologist and an army veteran. He left school at 16 to join the military and lost his left hand in battle. He is adamant: “Boy, girl - what difference does it make?” he asks. When his wife, Hasmik Badalyan, aged 46, was pregnant with Nelly, their third daughter, even life-long friends urged the couple to end the pregnancy. “People say all sorts of things,” he says, “but I stick to my principles.”

Such pressures are reflected in the results of ground-breaking research on son preference in Armenia commissioned by UNICEF and conducted from 2017 to 2019 by researchers from Brown University, ETH Zurich and the University of Lausanne. The findings reveal three factors that fuel the country’s gender imbalance: falling fertility rates, easy access to ultrasound technology, and deeply entrenched norms that still value sons more highly than daughters. The study confirms that families in Armenia use two methods to ensure they have sons: using ultrasound scans to identify female fetuses and terminate pregnancies; and the traditional strategy of only having children until you have at least one boy.

Mkrtich fixes a wooden box with the help of his daughter Svetlana, aged 16.
UNICEF/UNI222134/Babajanyan VII Photo
Mkrtich fixes a wooden box with the help of his daughter Svetlana, aged 16.

Mkrtich just doesn’t understand. “I don’t know why people want a boy so badly. They think they want a boy because their son will take care of them, but I know men who have never even gotten their parents a glass of water. People don’t know what they want."

Harutyun Darbinyan, 39, plays with his four-month-old daughter Lana, in their apartment in Yerevan.
UNICEF/UNI222265/Babajanyan VII Photo
Harutyun Darbinyan, 39, plays with his four-month-old daughter Lana, in their apartment in Yerevan.

In Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, Harutyun Darbinyan, 39, is another father who has celebrated the birth of each his daughters, saying “My daughters fill my life with so much joy.” When his fourth daughter, Lana, was born, he couldn’t wait to share the news. “I posted [on social media]: ‘My fourth miracle was born!’” he recalls. “And the comments quickly rolled in: ‘Wow, you had a son! Congratulations!’ I replied, ‘My girls are my miracles.'”

Like Mkrtich, Harutyun has had to endure more than his fair share of comments. “I just wanted a healthy child. I didn’t care,” he says. “But the reactions from my acquaintances were annoying. They would say, ‘It’s ok, the next one will be a boy.’”

Friends often tell him “Real men have sons.” But he knows how to respond: “When my friends say this to me, I tell them, ‘Men have sons, but real men have daughters.’” When his second daughter, Susanna, was born, friends with sons started joking, “Let me show you how it’s done.” He doesn’t take such comments to heart, he says, “but sometimes I give them a piece of my mind.” 

Harutyun with his four daughters at home in Yerevan, Armenia. Left to right: Susanna, aged 13, Harutyun with Luciana, aged 4, Tamara, aged 14, and Lana, aged 4 months.
UNICEF/UNI222269/Babajanyan VII Photo
Harutyun with his four daughters at home in Yerevan, Armenia. Left to right: Susanna, aged 13, Harutyun with Luciana, aged 4, Tamara, aged 14, and Lana, aged 4 months.

The UNICEF-supported research confirms that tackling GBSS means tackling gender norms, primarily among men and boys, but also among girls and women. It means creating an expectation that girls matter, and shifting the understanding of what it means to be a ‘real man’.

UNICEF advocates for policies and programmes to end all forms of violence against women and girls, including GBSS. As well as carrying out cutting-edge research on the causes and impact of this rights violation, we also share the stories of Armenian champions for change – ordinary families like those of Mkrtich and Harutyun, who are charting a course for others to follow.  

All interviews conducted by Nyree Abrahamian for UNICEF Armenia

Lana Darbinyan sleeps soundly in her family's home in Yerevan.
UNICEF/UNI222241/Babajanyan VII Photo
Lana Darbinyan sleeps soundly in her family's home in Yerevan.