Last year, clashes in a decades-old conflict between Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian forces in the Caucasus region motivated a number of young women and girls to challenge traditional gender roles and pick up arms.

“They are groundbreakers, facing resistance from many conservatives because they decided to go to a career where women are still not accepted,” photographer Lena Mucha told In Sight.

In Armenia’s capital of Yerevan, 23 female recruits entered the military academy in 2014, the first year women were accepted. A year later in Nagorno-Karabakh, girls joined the military high school in Stepanakert for the first time, Mucha reports.

Mucha visited both institutions last year and said that despite the fact that many had family members who served in the military, there was still much resistance to women joining. “Women should not be in the army, it’s not their place,” one of the physical instructors at the Yerevan Military Academy told Mucha, “They are just not like men.”

Clashes between the Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian forces over the breakaway enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh last year were the worst violence the region has seen since the ethnic war over the territory ended in 1994. The conflict that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union killed about 20,000 people. Today, Nagorno-Karabakh is formally a part of Azerbaijan but is in fact controlled by a separatist government backed by Armenia.

“The southern Caucasus and in particular Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh are widely known through media and visual representation for its conflict, destroyed and abandoned villages. Though this is reality, there is much more …” Mucha said.  “When I photographed these girls and spent time with them, I got to know them as quiet normal young women with very similar kind of preoccupations, thoughts and dreams most of the young woman around the globe would have.”

Despite the resistance that many of the young woman and girls faced, the experience created a bond between them, Mucha said. “A young woman normally doesn’t leave her parents’ house until she gets married and moves to her husband’s family. I think this is why the girls have built even stronger relationships among each other, they are more than just fellow students but like a family.”

Lena Mucha is a freelance photographer based in Berlin.

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