Abkhazia: The Violence No One Admits Exists
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Madina was no different from the women that had walked into Maya Shirokova’s office before - married, and desperate.

Madina [not her real name] got married in her early 20’s for love, but 15 years later her husband turned out to be an abusive alcoholic - also jobless he is unable to provide any support for her and their four children. Social pressure means she must hold on - in Abkhazia everyone knows everyone, families are considered strictly private realms, and the abuses she endures are considered “a private business.”

Since 2014 Shirokova, a lawyer, has assisted scores of victims of domestic abuse who approached the Association of Women of Abkhazia (AWS) as their last hope for help - like Madina, who walked into the Sukhum-based office decided to divorce. Far too often women seek psychological support but decide to forgive their abusers, fearing isolation and criticism.

“We’ll probably have to give a statement to the police, he won’t [let her] go that easily,” says Maya Shirokova. “Getting the papers for the divorce, like the division of the property and the children custody, is easy, but implementing it all is hard.”

In 2012 AWS, which was founded in 1999 and is supported mainly by international organizations, initiated a bill designed to address domestic violence. The draft aimed at protecting both women and children: it contained provisions to grant the police the powers to intervene, to introduce restraining orders for perpetrators and to set up a shelter for victims.

The process died as the 35-member national assembly showed no interest. Despite verbal support from lawmakers, politicians then stated, “there were more pressing laws that needed to be adopted as a priority.” Policy makers approached by Chai Khana declined to comment.

Lacking a legislative framework, the association remains the only structure providing psychological and legal support to victims of domestic violence - statistics are also needed to understand the scope of the phenomenon, but very rarely healthcare professionals refer to the police potential cases and when they do far too often the police does not intervene. There is not a shelter where victims can seek help - as society at large claims domestic violence does not exist, there is “no need” to have a shelter as there are “no victims.”

 

Maya Shirokova, a lawyer at the Abkhazia Women’s Association.

Women are then left alone to enter a spiral of depression and resignation.

“These women are broken, and they cannot think of a different life, being abused is the only way of life they know,” explains Shirokova. “When I tell them that they need to see a psychologist, not only a lawyer, their reply is usually that it is their husbands who are in  need of psychological support, not them, as they are “normal.” You see, they don’t even know what a psychologist really does. Usually our clients are uneducated women from rural areas.”

36-year-old Mandina is one of them. After 15 years of violence she lost the hope to ever have a normal family life. Now all she is concerned about is the future of her children. “I have three sons, between 14 years and one year old. They will all marry some day, however, what will their family be like if they grow up seeing their parents fighting all the time? I don’t want them to do to their wives what their father does to me.”



 

[transcript of the audio]

I lived with my husband for 15 years. I have 4 children. Everything was fine for the first two years, then he started drinking and fighting. I hoped [that he’d change] but things got worse. He can start a fight every minute; either because I am ‘improperly dressed’, or ‘sit the wrong way’ … he finds reasons.

Once he finds it, it is enough for him for the whole day; he calls me, he fights with me. He can use his hands, or even a chair, anything. Anything, I can expect anything, he can hit me with hands, fists, or feet. He doesn’t care, he’s out of control. I didn’t want my kids to grow up without a father. I tried to avoid that, but there doesn’t seen to be another solution.

I don’t want them to grow up like this either. They will marry one day, and will they do the same? I don’t say he must not see the kids. Of course they are his sons too, he can see them whenever he wants, but we just cannot live under one roof [anymore]. I have been lying to myself all these years, and see where we got to. It is a lie. Once [a man] raises his hands on you, you should end it right away. It will happen again. You forgive once, that’s it. If I’d realized that six years ago things would have been different. I was ashamed, I thought my mother would be offended, or my brother might say something, or the neighbors would talk. Now what do they think when they see me with bruises now?

My mother has her life, my brother his. Imagine he hits me with a chair and I die, what will happen to my kids? That shame will be useful when I die, maybe.



Madina lives in a 300-odd person mountainous village. She is the breadwinner, making about 8,000 rubles a month (less than USD 150) working in a grocery store - her husband makes no money and when he does, as an occasional worker, it all evaporates. In 2011 he beat her up so badly she ended up in the hospital with broken ribs - she now regrets not having had the courage to denounce him back then.

“It is all this stupid Caucasian thing. As women are always afraid to hurt someone, be it  our mother, our brother, or whomever. However, it is our life and no one else really suffers apart from us. If women would speak up and leave after the first abuse, there will be fewer families like mine.”

The turning point was the meeting with volunteers from Kiaraz, an Abkhazian charity which supports people in need. She opened up with them and they told her to seek support at the association.

“They gave me confidence. Today I do not consider myself a “nothing” any more. Now I know that I deserve a normal life. Moreover, now I am able to struggle for that.”

Trauma from the conflict that Abkhazians fought in 1992-1993 against the Georgians to gain independence left deep scars in the society, and the debilitating social conditions, including alcohol abuse, are among the causes of domestic violence. The lack of education, including sexual education, is on the other hand, at the root of early marriages and teen pregnancies.

Gynecologist Victoria Vorobyova regularly sees signs of violence, including sexual violence - and pregnant teenagers are among her patients.

“[Men do not consider it] as rape, [these] girls are just “taken” as wives,” she notes. “Is it normal to marry a not a completely [psychologically and physically] developed girl? What can we, the doctors, do? It is a crime, but we cannot report the cases without the victims’ consent.”

Slowly though the situation is improving, she maintains, and the number early marriages is decreasing.

Without a large, open debate bringing to the surface the public secret of violence that women endure at home, acts of courage like Madina’s attempt to divorce would remain isolated. And the scars would get as deep as Mandina’s - too late to be healed.

Slowly though the situation is improving, she maintains, and the number early marriages is decreasing. 

Without a large, open debate bringing to the surface the public secret of violence that women endures at home, acts of courage like Madina’s attempt to divorce would remain isolated. And the scars would get as deep as Mandina’s - too late to be healed.

Chai Khana
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