TBILISI, Georgia – Ia B. is a fit, elegant woman with bright hazelnut eyes, fashionable clothes and a vibrant personality that shines through her dazzling smile. She hasn’t always looked this poised and self-confident: According to Indira Robakidze, a programme coordinator at the Tbilisi-based shelter for the victims of domestic violence, Ia’s life was in shambles when she first entered the shelter. “She was pale, frightened and disoriented,” Indira recalls. “Look at how far she has come.”
Ia, now 45, spent 15 years in a marriage with an abusive husband. Throughout the years, she lived in constant fear as her husband controlled, harassed and battered her on a daily basis. A prisoner in her own home, she was afraid to leave and afraid to stay, knowing she would be ‘punished’ for every act her husband disapproved. “I had to ask for permission every time I left the house,” she recalls. “He beat me in front of my children, he beat me in front of his parents. He beat me constantly, all the time. I was suffering, but even worse, my children were suffering too.”
Spreading the word makes a difference
Then came the day when Ia decided she couldn’t take it anymore. That was the day she saw a TV public service announcement on domestic violence. It said that domestic violence is a crime in Georgia and provided a hotline number for victims who sought help. Ia found herself dialing the number before the clip was over. The next day she went to an interview where she told her story and was offered accommodation for herself and her children. She fled her home the very same day and entered the shelter where she would spend the next eight months recovering and finding peace.
Ia’s story of domestic abuse is not unique, but her determination to speak up and her courage to seek help outside of her home is the exception rather than the rule. According to a national survey carried out by UNFPA Georgia in 2009, 75 per cent of the women in Georgia believe that domestic violence is a private affair and should not be spoken about outside the family. The same research shows that only 2 per cent of women reach out to police, lawyers and other service providers when they face violence at home.
The reasons behind these numbers vary, but lack of information about the fact that domestic violence is punishable under law and about existing protection mechanisms are among the leading factors for why women choose to keep the bruises of domestic violence secret.
Getting the word out
In order to change this situation, UNFPA Georgia spearheaded a large-scale awareness raising campaign highlighting the criminal nature of domestic violence under Georgian law, advertising a national hotline on domestic violence, and encouraging women to call to seek help. UNFPA and its partners produced and aired several public service announcements on national TV stations and through social media, and put up billboards indicating the hotline numbers across the capital, Tbilisi. In addition to the media campaign, UNFPA organized awareness raising sessions for over 2,000 community leaders, teachers, students and journalists across Georgia, spreading the message about the harmful practices taking place against women in Georgia and the remedies available for their protection.
Ia is convinced that picking up the phone and calling the advertised hotline number was the best decision she has made in her life. Ia spent many months in the government-run shelter where she was provided with physiological, medical and legal assistance. Her two children were able to go to school, do their homework and play for the first time without the constant fear and aggression that they had had to endure until then. Ia is grateful to the shelter and the people who run it. Without the shelter, she says, she would have had nowhere to go. She would have been lost.
Services for victims of domestic violence change lives
Until a few years ago, such opportunities were not available to the victims of domestic violence in Georgia. It was only in 2009 that the national authorities began operating shelters for the survivors of domestic violence, following active lobbying efforts by international aid organizations and local NGOs. UNFPA has been at the forefront of the initiative from the beginning: back in in 2008, UNFPA supported the Georgian Parliament with the adoption of amendments to the domestic violence law. It then provided technical assistance for setting up a national referral mechanism for the victims of domestic violence and supported instituting mechanisms to protect victims and respond to domestic abuse. Currently, UNFPA helps the government to further strengthen the national response to domestic violence by integrating national referral mechanisms and the health system.
Partnering with men to end violence against women
Although Georgia has made important progress in establishing an enabling environment for the protection of women’s rights, and of survivors of domestic violence in particular, this small country wedged in the mountains of the South Caucasus still has a long way ahead. In deeply traditional Georgia, where patriarchal culture is strong, men are the decision makers, and as the popular Georgian saying goes, “Women know their place.”
That’s why UNFPA has been working to engage men and boys in the cause of ending violence against women. Hundreds of men have been trained through the “men-talking-to-men” methodology, encouraging them to assume responsibility for ending violence against women and accepting gender equality. The project was launched in 2010 and is ongoing with further plans for deepening and widening the initiative. In a country where virtually all decisions from policy issues to family affairs are made by men, having them as partners in the quest for zero tolerance against gender-based violence makes all the difference.
Toleration perpetuates the cycle of violence
Experts say that tolerance of domestic abuse is the biggest hold-up to progress in Georgia. The phenomenon is still widely accepted both in the private and public spheres. Ia recalls the time when she called the police after her husband severely beat her and threatened to throw her out of the house. “As soon as the police came, my husband quickly put on a mask of a polite person, apologized for his temper and told the police that he would never do anything to hurt his family. The police then took me aside and told me – ’In a family, who doesn’t fight? One day you fight, another day you love each other. You are a woman after all; you should try to find ways to make things better with your husband.’”
This incident happened in 2009. Since then, the Georgian police forces received extensive training on domestic violence, supported by UNFPA and its partners. Trainings specifically focused on police forces in rural areas where domestic violence is particularly prevalent and the police have little capacity to deal with it. UNFPA further lobbied for the incorporation of domestic violence in the curriculum of the National Police Academy and produced a handbook for police on domestic violence which was distributed to police officers nationwide.
Encouraging other women to seek help
Asked if there is a message she wants to convey to other women who find themselves in abusive relationships, like the one she put up with for over 15 years, Ia’s eyes sink and her face saddens as she thinks about the past. But after a few seconds, her dazzling eyes are back. She finally speaks up: “I do have a message for other women: Do not wait as long as I have waited. There are places to go and people who will help you in starting a new life. Do it for yourself, and, more importantly, do it for your children. Otherwise you ruin your life and you ruin theirs, and it’s too late.”
As Ia prepares to leave, putting on a pretty beige coat and a bright yellow scarf complementing her ivory skin tone, she apologizes she can’t stay for too long. She now has a job and works double shifts at a Germany-based company where she is paid well enough to pay the rent and support her family. Her litigation over the property she owns with her ex-husband is still pending, as the State Fund for the Protection of Victims of Trafficking and Domestic Violence continues to provide legal support to win her case.
If all goes well, she will soon have a roof of her own to raise her family. Her hope is that other women who are suffering in silence will find the strength and courage – and support -- to find their own ways to speak out, escape the violence and start over.
Tamar Vashakidze for UNFPA