From ONE Magazine

Confronting Abuse of Women in Georgia

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.

According to a 2017 study conducted by U.N. Women and the National Statistics Office of Georgia, one in seven women in Georgia has experienced domestic violence. Moreover, Georgia’s society has made it more difficult to find and help these women; the same study found nearly half the population believes domestic violence should be viewed as a private matter, and more than a third of women who are victims have never spoken about it.

While both the government and charities have offered programs since 2001, the services fall short of the need.

Mother Mariam, abbess of Tbilisi’s Transfiguration Convent, began helping single mothers in the 1990’s. At the time, little public awareness of the problem existed, nor did support from the government — emerging from the Soviet Union, Georgia’s economy collapsed, civil war raged and corruption destroyed the rule of law. Women had few options other than abortion or giving their children away, either to impoverished state institutions or human trafficking schemes.

“At that time, no one else was doing this job, which is why we had to do it,” says Mother Mariam, a well-known leader of Georgia’s dominant Orthodox church. “Our main goal was to save the children. The girls’ only recourse was abortion; they didn’t know where to go.

“When you encourage somebody to keep their child, you have to help.”

In line with these goals, the convent founded a home for mothers and their children outside of Tbilisi. They offered years of care, attempting to help the women overcome their hardships and provide them with training in any needed skills.

It was a difficult challenge for the convent, says Mother Mariam, as the sisters struggled to secure resources and guidance. Occupying the forefront of the issue, they could only do their best, listening closely to the needs of the mothers they tended. For example, the sisters were among the first to advocate that children remain with their mothers; at that time, the government believed the children of mothers who had either left their husbands or were single would be better off alone, in state care.

Today, there are more resources, a greater awareness and a deeper understanding of how to help the women and their children — especially among nongovernmental organizations, Mother Mariam said.

Indeed, child welfare specialists can point to several indicators that the situation is improving in the country. The 2017 U.N. Women study found that more and more women are using the resources available to leave abusive relationships and seek help for themselves and their children — some 18 percent of women in 2017, compared to just 1.5 percent in 2009. Each year, a greater number of women speak out.

“There is a very strong campaign against violence and for the rights of women in Georgia today,” says Gvantsa Bakradze, who coordinates the Caritas Georgia program at the St. Barbara Center.

Ms. Bakradze noted that the police have formed a separate department specially trained to deal with issues of violence against women.

“This is an ongoing process and the main thing is to change the attitude of people. Education and raising awareness are the most important things,” Ms. Bakradze says.

“Before, even the police did not even know how to act. They used to say, ‘It is your family, everything will be fine’; ‘he is drunk now, but tomorrow it will be different’; ‘don’t worry — if anything happens, call us.’ But now they have different instructions and better training,” she says.

“This campaign is really strong.”

Through Caritas Georgia and its St. Barbara Center, the nation’s Catholic churches (whose members account for less than 1 percent of the population of 5 million people) are playing an important role in society’s efforts to provide the resources women need to protect themselves and their children. Since it opened, the center has helped 19 mothers and 15 of their children.

Caritas Georgia takes care of all the needs of the mothers and their children while they are there — a family doctor sees them on site, a cook ensures they receive nourishing meals and a psychologist is available for counseling. The center’s team of professionals helps register school-age children for kindergarten or grade school and help the mothers either look for work or receive the training they need to find work.

Over the course of the year, the objective of the team at the center is to give the women the skills to provide for their children. It also tries to help the women begin to heal the emotional wounds caused by the abuse they have received. When possible, they work with the women and their extended families to help them forge healthier relationships.

Moreover, the residents receive free legal services, which have successfully helped women protect themselves from their abusers, noted Ms. Bakradze.

Legal services have been particularly useful for Thea and her son. While her former partner let her leave without a fight, he soon began to stalk her. Caritas Georgia, together with legal counsel, was able to help her secure a restraining order and is helping her prepare for further legal action against him, if necessary.

The center has given Thea the confidence to start planning a future for her and her son.

When she first arrived, she was convinced she would not be able to provide for Gabriel and, as with many mothers in Georgia, she was planning to seek work abroad — likely in Turkey. After five months at the center, however, she now plans to remain with her son and build a life together in Georgia.

Finding a job is her highest priority today and, she says, the most important assistance any program can offer a single mother. With a certificate in restaurant staff management, experience working in several restaurants and fluency in several languages, Thea’s prospects seem bright.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Many mothers come to the center without employable skills, and face greater uncertainty as a result. While unemployment in Georgia has fallen to the lowest point in a decade, Georgia still reported an unemployment rate of 11.8 percent as of 2016 — with rates tending higher for the younger segments of the workforce.

Echoing Thea, Ms. Bakradze agrees that employment is “the most important thing” for the women at the center — a crucial part of ensuring the women will be able to keep their children.

Since many of the young mothers have never worked, they do not know how to look for a job or write a resume. The team of caregivers at the center teach the women how to do both, and help them obtain training in skills demanded by local employers.

Mary, 28, arrived at the center when she was pregnant with her son, Giorgi. She immediately started thinking of how to prepare for life as a single mother. Looking through job listings, she noticed the majority of the vacancies were for cooks. With Caritas Georgia’s assistance, she has begun to study cooking at a local vocational school.

To date, Caritas Georgia has helped five mothers find employment.

Irina, a Russian émigré who decided to stay in Georgia with her two children, found herself homeless after her divorce. She bounced from shelter to shelter as she sought help for herself and her two boys, the youngest of whom is autistic.

At the St. Barbara Center, Irina said she found a team that wanted to help her so she could survive and thrive. Trained as a gemologist, Irina was afraid she would not find work in Tbilisi that would pay enough to provide for the three of them. After completing courses in massage therapy financed by Caritas Georgia, she was able to find a job and rent an apartment. Today, she earns enough to care for her sons.

Thea is eager to replicate this success for Gabriel and her.

“If a person is not employed, she cannot eat, she cannot sleep safely,” she says simply.

“If she has a job, she can eat, find a place to live, take care of herself and take care of her child.”

In between the flight from abuse, and making a new life, Caritas Georgia’s St. Barbara Center offers a refuge, a safe space where women may begin life anew with their children.

Last June, the police brought Teona and her toddler, Nitsa, to the center after responding to a domestic dispute at her home, where she lived with her father and her brother. Her brother, upset that Teona had a baby outside of marriage, had been bullying and even beating her. Even as the abuse escalated, Teona did not know where to go; she was financially dependent on her family but it was not safe to stay at home.

Now residing at the center, Teona calls St. Barbara’s “paradise.”

“There is a family atmosphere here, which was completely lacking in my own home. It is calm. I feel good here — safe.”

The difference has had an immediate effect on her daughter.

Nitsa was anxious when she first arrived, unwilling to interact with other children. Today, she is calm and happily plays with the six other children living at the center.

Nitsa’s transformation goes to the heart of the program, which is to provide the mothers and their children with the peace, stability and security they need to rebuild their lives.

“St. Barbara’s is really a bridge that can save the lives of these children and their mothers,” noted Nana Kukhalashvili.

“Sometimes, even the most humble of assistance and support can turn around a situation.”

The writing of Tbilisi-based photojournalist Molly Corso also appears on EurasiaNet.