When Even Defending Yourself is Taboo
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On June 17 around 15:00, Karlen Kashkhchyan, born in 1946 and resident in the village of Kaurma in Ninotsminda municipality,murdered his wife, Alvard Kashkhchyan, born in 1948. Alvard was the director of the public school in the village of Karuma.

The motif on the villagers’ mouth is jealousy.

Domestic violence is one of the problems that nobody talks about in Samtskhe-Javakheti, a region in southern Georgia with a sizeable Armenian population. Women are either ashamed to admit that they are the victims of domestic violence or they are afraid of the fatal consequences. They fear that denouncing their husbands and fathers would put in danger their children and siblings. They would rather not turn to the police or other law enforcement agencies. These and many other reasons make women weak and defenseless against a domestic tyrant. They are obliged to tolerate psychological and physical violence.

"Victims rarely acknowledge that they are bullied, sometime a woman might tell the neighbor about it but it ends there” explains Gohar Avakyan, an English teacher and counselor who is setting up an organization to assist women in the municipality.

 

In a report from 2015 Georgia’s Public Defender’s Office defined the scale of domestic violence in the country as “devastating.” In 2014 a series of femicides - 23 women were killed in domestic violence-related incidents - pushed the authorities to tighten the law to protect women against domestic abuse, yet law enforcement is weak and more often than not women are too scared or ashamed to denounce their husbands. Sometimes with fatal consequences.

Taking one’s "dirty linen into the public" is a shame, in small villages as in bigger towns like Akhalkalaki. However, sometimes bullying gets to the point when women leave the house and turn to neighbors for help. In the small town of Akhalkalaki, spreading news is easy but few help the victim of violence, because getting involved in someone else’s business is considered indecent.

Suicides occur few times a year, in different villages on Akhalkakali, but it can not be identified whether these tragedies are related to violence or not. In general having statistics is impossible, considering that everyone avoids to speak up.

Divorces are rare as the victim’s relatives push the woman to endure the violence, be it from the husband or the in-laws. Even rarer are the cases ending up in a trial - when they do take place, often the victim’s parents do not support their own daughter and the public justice points a finger against the woman.  

Women who decide to challenge the social norm and divorce their husbands are unsung heroes. Like Ani. She was 19 when she married her now estranged husband and she spent as many years enduring his beatings. Now 39 she is recovering from the nasty divorce and is looking for a job to support her eight-year-old daughter and herself.

Financial dependence in marriage is an important aspect. Even if the marriage is bad, most women realize that it will be difficult for them to support the children and where to live with them after a divorce is another challenge.

 

View of the town of Akhalkalaki from the Tavshan Tapa hill. A town of about 8,000 people, Akhalkalaki sits a few kilometres away from the Georgian-Turkish border and is the main settlement of the homonym municipality. Traditional, patriarchal values dominate and when women are subject to abuse at home they can count on little little help and support.
Two women filled up water tanks at a spring and transport them home using a donkey. In most of the villages in Samtskhe-Javakheti, the lack of basic infrastructures like roads or services like access to gas and running water take a tool on women's everyday life.
Women stashing grass for livestock in August. Every year unemployment push droves of men to seek work abroad, leaving their family behind for months. Women end up looking after the children as well as doing other hard work.
Kartsakhi - a village lying on the northeastern bank of the homonym lake on the border between Georgia and Turkey. The region of Samtkhe-Javakheti is populated by a sizeable Armenian community.
Two girls chat in Kartsakhi. Opportunities for young people are in short supply, most of them prefer to leaves for the city.
Heaps of wool in a courtyard in the village of Kochio, in the municipality of Alkhalkaki. Every year women work on the wool and after washing is done they leave them on the sun to dry. The wool is then used to make blankets and mattresses.
Children play around the ruin of a church in the village of Kochio under their mother's supervision. Looking after the children is a main preoccupation of women.

Nobody wants to tell her history because if they talk openly, everyone will know what they have been through. Therefore our character avoids publicity. She does not want to reveal herself because she and her husband had a child together.

"I regret tolerating it for so long,” she laments as we meet in a recently opened support centre. “Why should I suffer if he [my husband] did not understand anything? I suffered so much because of him."

 

Since July 2017 the local NGO “Women of multinational Georgia” runs in Akhalkalaki a support centre and shelter where women and child victims of domestic violence can find refuge as well as psychological and legal assistance. The centre is part of the project "No to family violence” funded by the European Union which aims at increasing awareness about domestic abuse and provides support to victims.

The facility can house victims only for three days, yet Alla Bezhentseva, chairman of the NGO and project coordinator, maintains that, should such a shelter have been opened before, the fate of Alvard Kashkhchyan could have been different.

“She came to us, but then we were not yet open, and we did not have specialists,” she recalls. “The lawyer advised about what she could do, but you still saw what happened to her. It is painful to us.”

The shelter is recent but previous experiments fostering women’s equality show that few women are likely to turn to it for help. 

An earlier service, the Women's Room ran for about two years from December 2014 as part of an internationally-funded project aimed at offering services tailored for women. The room, operated by and located in the municipal building, features a library, a computer and internet access as well as a playground and hosts ad-hoc vocational training. The project ended but the activities should be transferred to the local budget - the local authorities however are not willing to pay salaries so the room opens only when there is a need for a space. Women victim of domestic violence rarely sought advice from the operators in the facility.

"I have no statistics, but there are cases of women pushed to commit suicide [by desperation],” notes Anaid Asaturyan, manager of the Women’s Room. “For our city and region, it's scary that it happens once a year." 

Dali Agdgomeladze has been working on women's issues for over a decade. In 2003 she founded “Women for the Future of Javakheti”, an NGO advocating for women’s empowerment which organized meetings to expose the risks of early marriages and domestic violence. Since everything in Akhalkalaki is divided between what men and women can do and where each can or cannot go, in 2016 Agdgomeladze and her family decided to open a women’s cafe - no official ban to men, but essentially the cafe is branded as an all-women’s space.

"Traditional families and upbringing do not allow us to be equal with men in restaurants or other institutions. It seems that women lose a lot," explains Dali.

A "seasonal matriarchy" rules in Akhalkalaki. Unemployment and poverty push men to seek work either abroad, mainly in Russia, or in other regions, hence leaving their families for up to eight months every year, or sometimes even for more than a year. In their absence the in-laws - usually the father, unless he as well emigrate - become heads of the household, controlling the wife. The control is both psychological and physical and it can lead to abuse.

"The men emigrate because there is no work in the Armenian villages,” notes Bezhentseva. “Women stay behind with the children and elderly who try to support their sons by preserving his honor. Imagine the conditions in which women live."

Chai Khana
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