In Breakaway Abkhazia, Revived Traditions Put Women on the Edge
| By Johanna Higgs
SUKHUMI, Abkhazia — Here in the Caucasus region, hugging the Black Sea, this is what the capital of the small breakaway territory of Abkhazia looks like, more than 20 years after severing from Georgia: a city in tatters with abandoned buildings lining the streets and bullet holes still pockmarking the facades.
The territory’s quarter of a million people remain isolated from the West; as a result, women’s lives have become more precarious. Their conditions are kept largely out of global view because of restrictions on outside rights organizations to check on their status.
More ominously, honor killings appear to be rising, but few people dare to talk about them openly. Such violence was not always part of the region’s culture.
“For a long time, we didn’t know what an honor killing was,” said Liana Kvarchelia, deputy director of the Center for Humanitarian Programs, a nongovernmental organization in Sukhumi. “Now we have several cases. It’s often very poor and uneducated families who have most like learnt it from the North Caucasus” — Russian turf.
Russian soldiers guard the unofficial border between Abkhazia and Georgia as tensions from the 1992 breakaway conflict continue to simmer.
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. Similarities can be drawn to the current volatility in Ukraine’s Donbass region, where Russia stokes a separatist movement.
Ironically, women used to pay a prominent role in Georgian society before the end of the Soviet Union, but they never achieved full equality, particularly in politics. After Abkhazia broke off, women’s roles shifted, mostly for the worse.
Trauma from the separatist conflict and debilitating social conditions, including drug and alcohol abuse, weigh down Abkhazian society. These problems have led to more incidences of domestic violence, but 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, financed by Polish Aid, a government entity.
The report bemoans the lack of oversight on the rights of women in Abkhazia as well as no data to present a clear picture.
Not surprisingly, most women interviewed for this article asked not to be named, wary of speaking publicly about such revived concepts as honor and shame, stemming from various forms of domestic violence.
Before the Soviet Union fell apart, women in Abkhazian society were encouraged to get a full education and hold jobs, including in government, said Amina Enik, an English-language teacher from Abkhazian State University. But 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.”
Members of the Association of Women in Abkhazia, an NGO promoting women’s advances socially and politically. Abkhazia remains deeply hobbled by isolation from the West. JOHANNA HIGGS
Yet such gains for women have been countered by equally painful losses.
One emerging horror for women and girls is honor killings. Arthur Cholakyan, 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.”
Kvarchelia confirmed an increase of honor killings.
The 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.
The rise in honor killings has been blamed on a regression of values in Abkhazia, some residents here say. With limited connection to most parts of the world, people in Abkhazia are reverting to very old — and harsh — traditions.
“Abkhazia was recognized by Russia in 2008; however, the rest of the world is keeping us in isolation,” Kvarchelia said. “There are few opportunities for us to go and get educated in Europe or to travel and learn about the rest of the world. We are limited to only influences from 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.
But the abortion ban is expected to lead to more illegal abortions, the Georgia report noted.
The Women’s Initiative Club, a new civil society group in Sukhumi, conducted a poll that found that the majority of respondents, 85 percent, disagreed with Parliament’s abortion ban. Only two members did not back the law. One of them was the only female member of the Parliament.