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Age discrimination in Armenia: why women turn to plastic surgery to find work

21 June 2018
Beauty salon in Yerevan. (Nazik Armenakyan /Daphne)

With high levels unemployment, Armenians are especially vulnerable to exploitation from unscrupulous employers. Given a lack of legal protections, employers are free to discriminate against female applicants based on their age or how they look. For some women, the only answer they see is to undergo cosmetic procedures, to make them look younger in the hope of finding a job.

The streets of Yerevan are lined with beauty salons, where for a small amount of money, certain external cosmetic procedures can be carried out.

‘I carry out procedures to enlarge the lips, lip liner tattoos, as well as smoothing out small wrinkles on the mouth, eyes, and forehead. I have many clients who visit me regularly’, says cosmetologist Shushan. According to her, some of her regular clients do not visit her by choice.

‘I have clients who compulsorily come for a couple of procedures twice a year; they should always be in good shape — that's a demand from their bosses. Their facial treatment is like buying a new T-shirt, they say that nothing “worn out” is accepted in their company, neither clothing nor faces’.

If you are over 25 years old then you are too old

Thirty-one-year-old Alina was looking for a job for a long time. Upon graduating from university, she left for Europe to work on volunteer projects in Poland. When she returned home, she struggled to find work. She says she couldn’t find a job because employers considered her too ‘old’.

‘I’m a translator, I’m fluent in foreign languages, but it’s difficult to find a job in my profession in this city, so I decided to go for a job as a shop assistant at a store where I knew they had a vacancy. I applied. The director didn’t even care who I was, what kind of education I had, he just examined me and asked how old I was. I said 27. Then he replied: “Sorry, but you’re too old, you’re not right for this job” ’, Alina says.

Today, Alina works in an educational institution and says her friends are jealous of her, as despite her age, she has been able to find a good job.

A cleaning lady is needed, up to 25 years old, pretty, beautiful, without any complexes, to work in my own flat. Salary — starting from ֏150,000 ($300).

‘My 33-year-old friend can’t find a job anywhere. Everyone says she is too old and not good-looking enough. She’s only offered jobs as a cleaner’, says Alina.

Being a woman is complicated in Armenia; there are few places in the labour market for a woman past her late 20s, 25–27 years old is the limit. Beyond that, a woman is considered to be useless by many employers.

‘I came from Vanadzor [a city in northern Armenia] to Yerevan in search of work and thought I would find a job here; I couldn’t find a job within my profession in my hometown — I’m an economist. I came, began to search for work, and realised that it was totally useless to come to Yerevan’, says 38-year-old Lusine, who not being able to find office work, began to look for a job as a shop assistant.

‘I went to a few shops, but they told me: “sorry, we can only offer you a job as a cleaner” ’

Wanted: a saleswoman who looks like a model

‘I have a small kiosk where I sell bags, and at the moment I have an advertisement looking for a tall saleswoman with long hair and thick lips, up to 25 years old. It's pleasant for me when a girl with this type of look works in my store. [A woman with] this kind of appearance also attracts customers’, says Arayik, a male resident of Yerevan who has not chosen a saleswoman yet.

Ara Ghazaryan, an expert in international law from Armenia’s Chamber of Advocates, says that according to the Labour Code, there is no clear regulation prohibiting employers from discriminating based on gender, appearance, or age. He says the only legal mechanism that could be cited is the Armenian constitution, according to which everyone is equal before the law and discrimination is prohibited.

‘We face discrimination on the basis of gender. There is only one point in the Labour Code in which discrimination is prohibited[…] unfortunately, we do not have a specific law to combat discrimination [even though such a law] is very necessary in Armenia today’.

According to Ghazaryan, not only is there no provision within the law to combat sex-based discrimination, but women will also go to great lengths to avoid voicing problems related to their employers.

‘A woman applies for a job. She is rejected for some reason or simply refuses the offer without mentioning the reason. Often the employer exploits the fact that he has the right to decide who can work with him even though it does not mean that he will make an announcement and state that he is looking for attractive, young girls [with perfect bodies]’, says Ghazaryan.

Demand for sexual services in return for employment

Twenty-nine-year-old Ani recently responded to an online advertisement for secretaries up to 25 years old which offered a monthly salary of ֏200,000 ($410). She says she called the employer and said that though she was slightly older than the age limit, she has work experience and asked to be given a chance.

‘I went to the meeting with the director. He examined me from head to toe and even asked me to turn around for him. He thought for a few moments and said that despite my “older” age, I still looked fresh and could work. But he put several conditions before me: I had to plump up my lips and be ready for free ‘communication’ outside of work. He said he liked going out and that his secretary should socialise freely with him at night and sometimes kiss him with her thick lips. I just ran out of there’, says Ani.

‘I graduated from the Pedagogical University. I am a linguist. After three years I still couldn’t find work so in the end, I decided to take a job as a waitress in a café as there was no other option. A week after I started, the café’s manager called me into his office and said he could make me a manager, but I had to earn it — he demanded I have sex with him in return. My face became completely red, I just wanted to die of shame. Being a waitress does not mean being a prostitute’, says Gayane (not her real name).

‘Exploiting a woman’s vulnerable situation, male employers sometimes offer them an intimate relationship. This is very common in Armenia. But since we do not have a law regulating this issue, and things are already complicated for women, they are ashamed to speak about this problem, these cases do not go to court yet’, Ara Ghazaryan says.

There are 46,700 unemployed women registered in Armenia. They make up two thirds of the total number of unemployed people.

Due to employers’ demands for female employees to have a certain ‘look’, beauty salons and cosmetic surgery clinics have become more popular in Armenia. Though there are no official statistics, plastic surgeons report that every day, with surgery and cosmetic adjustments, dozens of young women are plumping up their lips, buttocks and breasts. To get the job, women are forced to transform themselves.

This article was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Regional Office in the South Caucasus. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES.

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