Confronting Abuse of Women in Georgia

Turning around the lives of at-risk mothers and their children

text and photographs by Molly Corso

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When the father of Thea’s baby boy threw a metal ashtray at her son’s head, she knew it was time to leave. She did not have a job or a family to turn to, but she packed her things and walked out the door with Gabriel.

“My baby had just turned 40 days old and he threw the ashtray, asking, ‘Why is he crying?’ “ recalls Thea, 29.

“I left him of my own free will because I could not put up with violence against me, against my baby.”

Thea and Gabriel ended up on the streets in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.

A concerned taxi driver took them to one of Tbilisi’s few homeless shelters, but the shelter supported only adults; Thea could not stay there with her baby.

Thea’s story is not unique. Georgia, a former Soviet republic that shares borders with Russia, Turkey and Armenia, has struggled to build a strong safety net for its most vulnerable citizens, including women and their children fleeing domestic abuse. Fortunately for Thea and Gabriel, the St. Barbara Mother and Child Care Center offered a safe space in their time of greatest need — away from abuse and off of the street.

Nana Kukhalashvili, program manager for children and youth at Caritas Georgia — the social service network of Georgia’s Armenian, Chaldean and Latin Catholic churches that opened the center for women and children in January 2017 — says this matter has been a source of increasing concern.

Today, the St. Barbara Center provides women and their children up to age 10 with security and financial aid for 12 months. It is one of five such locations in the country that serve as part of a larger government-led initiative to help women in need, including three centers in Tbilisi and two in Kutaisi, a city in western Georgia.

The services these centers provide face a growing demand; the number of beneficiaries has increased from 8 in 2012 to 137 in 2017, according to the health ministry, and these figures hardly suffice to capture the full scale of the problem across the country.

Against such hardship, and with support from both within the country and abroad, the St. Barbara Center and its sister institutions together serve as a lifeline to Georgia’s most vulnerable.

For centuries, a strong family unit has served as the backbone of Georgian culture, with firmly rooted traditions of care within households and village communities. But a combination of poverty and traditional social mores — which are perceived to be under siege, even in rural areas — have seen many families unwilling to accept “illegitimate” children and, in some cases, unable or unwilling to protect women trapped in a cycle of domestic violence.

“There are some specific rules that one should not violate, for instance for a woman to give birth prior to marriage,” says Ms. Kukhalashvili. Such actions, she explains, may be seen as “giving a bad reputation to your family.”

But as the social mores that once united the family break down — largely due to rapid socioeconomic change — the number of single women having children (or the acknowledgment thereof) has increased, as have incidents of domestic violence.

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