Project MonMa in Abkhazia

Project Monma travelled to Abkhazia to learn more about situation of women’s rights in the small territory and how women have been impacted since the war.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, ethnic Abkhazians, who had been living in the newly independent Georgia, wanted to create their own state, and in 1992, a civil war broke out. Abkhazians, backed by the Russians, fought to separate from Georgia, and Abkhazians tried to push ethnic Georgians out. Georgians fought back and bloodshed ensued.

In 1994, both sides agreed to a cease-fire, and the demarcation line separating Abkhazia and Georgia was at one point monitored by the United Nations. The line remains the unofficial border between Abkhazia and Georgia. Years later, Abkhazia declared independence, and in 2008 it was formally recognized by Russia. Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru are the only other nations that recognize Abkhazia, while the UN does not. Georgia insists that Abkhazia is part of Georgia and calls the Russian forces stationed in the territory occupiers. 

During the time of the Soviet Union, women in Abkhazia used to play a prominent role in Georgian society. Women were encouraged to get a full education and hold jobs, including in government. However since the end of the war between Abkhazia and Georgia, women’s lives have gone up and down. 

One positive effect was that they began to sell tangerines. During the war, the primary way of generating income came through cross-border trade with Russia, mostly in tangerines grown in Abkhazia. The Russians, however, imposed a blockade, allowing only women to cross the border to trade.

‘The Russians were worried that men who had been by militarized by the conflict between Abkhazia and Georgia would cross the border and join the Chechens, who had also begun their own separatist movement from Russia at the time,’ Kvarchelia of the Center for Humanitarian Programs said. ‘Men between 16 and 60 were banned from crossing into Russia.’

When women began trading tangerines, they became family breadwinners. To a great extent, their new roles made men more dependent on women, Kvarchelia said, dramatically increasing women’s status but undermining male psyches. Refreshingly, women began to dominate in civil society, gaining more respect.
‘Women’s opinion is now more listened to, which is something that has happened since the war,’ said a local journalist. ‘It happened quite fast.’

Yet such gains for women have been countered by equally painful losses. Women never achieved full equality, particularly in politics. After Abkhazia broke off, women’s roles shifted, mostly for the worse. The economic isolation and limited influences from outside have meant that Abkhazia has stayed largely traditional, a fact that has had serious ramifications for women’s rights in the country.
Drug and alcohol abuse, are prevalent in Abkhazian society which have led to more incidences of domestic violence. There are few legal protections for women, no shelters for women escaping abuse and few psychological services, according to a recent report by the public defender’s office in Georgia. 

As in much of the world, violence against women is largely surrounded by silence. Ideas of honour and shame that blame women for the violence perpetrated against them often render them silent. Most of the women interviewed asked not to be named, afraid of the stigma that comes with speaking up about women’s rights.

Nobody talks about violence against women,’ said a young Abkhazian journalist, ‘when I first started writing about women’s issues, I was told that it would only bring me trouble’.

Her voice dropped to a whisper and she explained that while she was interested in women’s rights, there were few journalists in Abkhazia who would speak about it. ‘There is an old Russian saying in Abkhazia that if a man beats his wife he loves her. Domestic violence is a really big problem here, the problem is, few women will speak about it,’ she said.

In an interview with an activist from International Alert, an organisation working on conflict prevention, she explained that domestic violence and strict traditions are the main problems for women in Abkhazia. ‘There is abuse in the family; there is a lot of shouting. Women don’t realise that this a human right violation. A lot of women here are afraid to divorce because of the culture, they fear that people will criticise her.’ 

‘We have some very strict traditions which cause difficulties in women’s lives,’ she added. ‘Men are dominant everywhere. There are some traditions that should be eradicated because they directly violate women’s rights’.

For a Russian journalist who grew up in Abkhazia during the Soviet times, she agreed that domestic violence, among many other problems, are prevalent in Abkhazia. Problems which she also attributed to the traditional nature of Abkhazian society. She explained, ‘up until the 1930s, most Abkhazian’s were living in isolated communities in the mountains. They didn’t start to move out of these communities until the Soviet Union started to make beaches and places where people could live, which is most likely why Abkhazia has remained so traditional.’ Traditions include bride kidnapping, forced marriage and honour killings.

An honour killing is where usually a woman or a girl is killed by a family member for a perceived sexual transgression. This usually includes having a sexual relationship outside of marriage, but can also include even being suspected of having a relationship. It is believed that the only way to restore the honour of the family is to kill her. All the women I spoke with in Abkhazia confirmed that there had been several cases of honour killings in recent times, something all of the women were deeply concerned about.

Arthur, a resident of Sukhumi, explained, ‘the whole region is built on honor. A woman is not permitted to have sexual relations outside of her husband. In the case of an honor killing, the authorities won’t do anything because it is considered a family issue.’ 

A recent Georgia report cited a case involving the death of a young woman in Abkhazia that provoked concerns among local women’s groups. According to the official version of events, the woman committed suicide. In a statement issued by women’s groups in September 2016, they argued that there had been several cases involving revenge against women by their family members for allegedly violating so-called moral norms.

‘For a long time, we didn’t know what an honor killing was,’ said Liana Kvarchelia. ‘Now we have several cases. It’s often very poor and uneducated families who have most like learnt it from the North Caucasus,’ which are in Russia.

In 2009, local women’s groups successfully helped to pass a law granting women equal rights and opportunities. The law, however, lacks an action plan and political will to enforce it. Moreover, in a blow to women’s rights in 2016, the de facto government of Abkhazia made abortion illegal during all circumstances except when the fetus dies during pregnancy. The rationale for the law is to combat demographic decline, or low birth rates. The law also features provisions for protecting motherhood and maternal health, such as prohibiting women from working in activities requiring heavy lifting. It also ensures maternity leave.

For now, the situation of women’s rights in Abkhazia remains difficult.

Project MonMa in Abkhazia

Project Monma travelled to Abkhazia to learn more about situation of women’s rights in the small territory and how women have been impacted since the war.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, ethnic Abkhazians, who had been living in the newly independent Georgia, wanted to create their own state, and in 1992, a civil war broke out. Abkhazians, backed by the Russians, fought to separate from Georgia, and Abkhazians tried to push ethnic Georgians out. Georgians fought back and bloodshed ensued.

In 1994, both sides agreed to a cease-fire, and the demarcation line separating Abkhazia and Georgia was at one point monitored by the United Nations. The line remains the unofficial border between Abkhazia and Georgia. Years later, Abkhazia declared independence, and in 2008 it was formally recognized by Russia. Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru are the only other nations that recognize Abkhazia, while the UN does not. Georgia insists that Abkhazia is part of Georgia and calls the Russian forces stationed in the territory occupiers. 

During the time of the Soviet Union, women in Abkhazia used to play a prominent role in Georgian society. Women were encouraged to get a full education and hold jobs, including in government. However since the end of the war between Abkhazia and Georgia, women’s lives have gone up and down. 

One positive effect was that they began to sell tangerines. During the war, the primary way of generating income came through cross-border trade with Russia, mostly in tangerines grown in Abkhazia. The Russians, however, imposed a blockade, allowing only women to cross the border to trade.

‘The Russians were worried that men who had been by militarized by the conflict between Abkhazia and Georgia would cross the border and join the Chechens, who had also begun their own separatist movement from Russia at the time,’ Kvarchelia of the Center for Humanitarian Programs said. ‘Men between 16 and 60 were banned from crossing into Russia.’

When women began trading tangerines, they became family breadwinners. To a great extent, their new roles made men more dependent on women, Kvarchelia said, dramatically increasing women’s status but undermining male psyches. Refreshingly, women began to dominate in civil society, gaining more respect. ‘Women’s opinion is now more listened to, which is something that has happened since the war,’ said a local journalist. ‘It happened quite fast.’

Yet such gains for women have been countered by equally painful losses. Women never achieved full equality, particularly in politics. After Abkhazia broke off, women’s roles shifted, mostly for the worse. The economic isolation and limited influences from outside have meant that Abkhazia has stayed largely traditional, a fact that has had serious ramifications for women’s rights in the country.

Drug and alcohol abuse, are prevalent in Abkhazian society which have led to more incidences of domestic violence. There are few legal protections for women, no shelters for women escaping abuse and few psychological services, according to a recent report by the public defender’s office in Georgia.

 

As in much of the world, violence against women is largely surrounded by silence. Ideas of honour and shame that blame women for the violence perpetrated against them often render them silent. Most of the women interviewed asked not to be named, afraid of the stigma that comes with speaking up about women’s rights.

Nobody talks about violence against women,’ said a young Abkhazian journalist, ‘when I first started writing about women’s issues, I was told that it would only bring me trouble’.

Her voice dropped to a whisper and she explained that while she was interested in women’s rights, there were few journalists in Abkhazia who would speak about it. ‘There is an old Russian saying in Abkhazia that if a man beats his wife he loves her. Domestic violence is a really big problem here, the problem is, few women will speak about it,’ she said.

In an interview with an activist from International Alert, an organisation working on conflict prevention, she explained that domestic violence and strict traditions are the main problems for women in Abkhazia. ‘There is abuse in the family; there is a lot of shouting. Women don’t realise that this a human right violation. A lot of women here are afraid to divorce because of the culture, they fear that people will criticise her.’ 

‘We have some very strict traditions which cause difficulties in women’s lives,’ she added. ‘Men are dominant everywhere. There are some traditions that should be eradicated because they directly violate women’s rights’.

For a Russian journalist who grew up in Abkhazia during the Soviet times, she agreed that domestic violence, among many other problems, are prevalent in Abkhazia. Problems which she also attributed to the traditional nature of Abkhazian society. She explained, ‘up until the 1930s, most Abkhazian’s were living in isolated communities in the mountains. They didn’t start to move out of these communities until the Soviet Union started to make beaches and places where people could live, which is most likely why Abkhazia has remained so traditional.’ Traditions include bride kidnapping, forced marriage and honour killings.

An honour killing is where usually a woman or a girl is killed by a family member for a perceived sexual transgression. This usually includes having a sexual relationship outside of marriage, but can also include even being suspected of having a relationship. It is believed that the only way to restore the honour of the family is to kill her. All the women I spoke with in Abkhazia confirmed that there had been several cases of honour killings in recent times, something all of the women were deeply concerned about.

Arthur, a resident of Sukhumi, explained, ‘the whole region is built on honor. A woman is not permitted to have sexual relations outside of her husband. In the case of an honor killing, the authorities won’t do anything because it is considered a family issue.’ 

A recent Georgia report cited a case involving the death of a young woman in Abkhazia that provoked concerns among local women’s groups. According to the official version of events, the woman committed suicide. In a statement issued by women’s groups in September 2016, they argued that there had been several cases involving revenge against women by their family members for allegedly violating so-called moral norms.

‘For a long time, we didn’t know what an honor killing was,’ said Liana Kvarchelia. ‘Now we have several cases. It’s often very poor and uneducated families who have most like learnt it from the North Caucasus,’ which are in Russia.

In 2009, local women’s groups successfully helped to pass a law granting women equal rights and opportunities. The law, however, lacks an action plan and political will to enforce it. Moreover, in a blow to women’s rights in 2016, the de facto government of Abkhazia made abortion illegal during all circumstances except when the fetus dies during pregnancy. The rationale for the law is to combat demographic decline, or low birth rates. The law also features provisions for protecting motherhood and maternal health, such as prohibiting women from working in activities requiring heavy lifting. It also ensures maternity leave.

For now, the situation of women’s rights in Abkhazia remains difficult.

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