KOOYRIG TO KNOW: LARA ROSTOMIAN

INTERVIEW BY ALEXA GRIS

 
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Meet Lara, our pre-med kooyrig who’s leading a generation of research regarding sexual health and family planning in Armenia. Lara is a student studying Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley. Her passion drives her calling, as she gathers information that considers cultural context, as well as health and well being. Importantly, she aims to overcome the dominant negative social stigma surrounding conversations about sexual health in Armenia.

This summer, Lara is traveling to Armenia to conduct independent, survey-based research on sexual health and family planning in Armenia. As a recipient of UC Berkeley’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship and a research grant from the Pergo Fund, she’s going to be working with Women’s Resource Center to explore trends in sexual health and family planning.

In interviewing Lara, we were exposed to the holistic view of what it’s like to walk the research-road less traveled as a female Armenian activist pursuing a career in medicine.

What inspired you to research family planning and reproductive health in Armenia?

“During Summer 2018, I took a class called Women’s Global Health and Empowerment as an elective for my Global Public Health Minor. In the class, we were often asked to pick a country and look at their specific indicators such as abortion rates or total fertility rates (TFR). Of course, I chose Armenia as my country every time. I discovered that Armenia had a low contraceptive prevalence and a low TFR, which was very unusual because this relationship theoretically should be inverse (i.e. more people using contraception = less babies = low TFR & visa-versa).

This led me to realize that abortion rates in Armenia are very high, and essentially, women are using abortion as their main method of family planning. As an Armenian woman living in America, I count myself privileged to have access to many family planning options. [Armenia’s] unsettling numbers led me to wonder what exactly it is that is holding back my fellow Kooyrigs in Armenia from having the same versatility in their family planning options.”

What shocked you most about the status of modern contraceptives in Armenia?

“First of all, I was most discouraged to see the shockingly limited literature available on the issue. I only found a hand full of credible studies that highlighted specific topics of family planning and contraceptives. These sources were extremely outdated, with the most recent study dating back to 2002 (i.e. Westoff, Sullivan, Newby, & Themme). I was more shocked to see that Armenia had a fairly liberal abortion law, which allowed women to obtain safe and legal abortions up to 12 weeks- and also later, depending on social/medical circumstances.

In terms of content, I was extremely intrigued by the data of the studies. The one from 2002 I just mentioned asked Armenian women:

“What is your reason for not intending use of contraception?”

The most common responses said that contraception wasn’t utilized because they believed they didn’t have sex frequently enough to need contraception. The second most common position was that there was opposition to contraception by one of the parties present. Lastly, a set of vague responses such as health reasons, side effects, and interferes with body were reasons that women did not utilize contraception. The last few responses, in my opinion, seemed to indicate the presence of suspicion towards modern contraceptive methods. This possibly stems from misconceptions or a lack of sexual education. It’s heartbreaking, yet not surprising, to see opposition to use by partner make it to the list at all.”

What are your ultimate goals in conducting family planning research in Armenia?

“My ultimate goal is to unpack the above mentioned health reasons, side effects, interferes with body, and other category of women’s responses. I want to talk to real women about their real reasons for not using modern contraception.

While the Westoff et al. study in 2002 was a great place to start with gathering this preliminary information, I believe talking to women about these issues is much more valuable than giving them a drop down list of “reasons for not intending use”. That is my main goal in my research – to talk to women and hear their stories.

I also want to focus on the changes and advances that have been made in the family planning field in the past ten years. Given the great political and social progress Armenia has made since 2002, it’s important to reevaluate the current attitudes towards women’s sexual and reproductive health, and to assess whether the strides towards modernity have translated into this field.

I hope to discover how women’s attitudes have changed (specifically post-Velvet Revolution of 2018) and identify the specific root causes of women’s suspicions regarding modern contraceptive use. By getting to the root of these concerns, women’s health advocates in Armenia may be able to better target these issues by creating tailored education programs for women about their options in order to ensure productive family planning.”

As an Armenian woman studying medicine, have you faced any challenges?

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“I am very fortunate to have an incredibly supportive family who have done nothing but encourage and cheer me on in all my endeavors. With that being said, as an Armenian woman pursuing medicine there have been several people who have had negative opinions regarding my goals; these were opinions that I did not ask for and had no interest in hearing.

These comments have been mainly targeted at whether or not I still wanted to have a family and why I chose such a difficult career path that will keep me away from home. However, it’s hard to say if these were opinions I received because I was an Armenian woman pursuing medicine or just because I was a woman pursuing medicine. To these comments I have paid no attention and have rather continued to accept support from my family and peers, and have looked up to several female physicians with balanced lives and beautiful families as my role models and sources of inspiration throughout this journey.”

Has your Armenian culture shaped or influenced your goals and aspirations?

“It definitely has! I am specifically interested in pursuing a medical degree and working as a physician in the field of Women’s Reproductive Health. To me, women’s reproductive health is the intersection of healthcare and advocacy, two topics I am very passionate about.

Over the past few years, I have watched as women’s rights advocates have raised their voices in Armenia, and advocate for a change to the traditional mindset that so often limits our culture’s growth and diversity. I love being Armenian and am eternally proud of our radiant culture, resilient history, and valuable traditions, but with that comes an understanding that without criticizing our culture’s shortcomings and limitations, we inherently stunt its growth and limit its potential.

It is no secret that women’s sexual and reproductive health is a stigmatized topic in Armenian culture, and as an Armenian woman, I am proud to take a step towards de-stigmatizing the topic with this research, which I hope will contribute to the advancement of our culture and will allow me to join in the efforts to advocate for strong Armenian women whose potentials and rights have so often been overlooked.”