Uncommon Courage: Women on the Front Lines of a Forgotten Conflict
As part of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ (IFES) gender empowerment project in Georgia under its program “Strengthening Electoral Processes” funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, IFES works with local partner organizations to support women to be leaders in their communities, often overcoming the most daunting of odds. To that end, IFES has been supporting the Gender Equality Network (GEN) and the Journalists’ Network for Gender Equality (JNGE) to work with women in villages and towns near the disputed administrative border region dividing Georgia from South Ossetia to not only gain confidence and professional skills to advocate for their rights, but also to draw attention to what has proven to be an intractable yet seemingly-forgotten issue: forcible redrawing of the administrative boundary by the moving of posts and placement of barbed wire fences.
Many women living in this region are internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the war in South Ossetia, with Georgians previously living in South Ossetia forced out of their homes or moved out of other parts of the region via creeping “borderization.” Indeed, several Georgians interviewed for this article were twice displaced, having fled South Ossetia only to flee again from Gori, Georgia after that city was bombed in the 2008 conflict with Russia. In addition to having to live in camps and settlements for IDPs, in order to exercise their rights many of these women need to overcome social stereotypes about a woman’s role in Georgian society, which remains quite traditional even as the country has modernized. Even among women themselves, there is a sense that leadership and initiative are not attributes that women have or should pursue.
Within this context, IFES has worked to support women’s empowerment through development of a network of local advocacy organizations and by conducting hands on training throughout the country. Local partners GEN and JNGE have worked tirelessly through IFES to encourage women to assert their rights and overcome barriers and obstacles to their participation as Georgian citizens and community leaders. IFES-sponsored education programs and advocacy training has helped women develop confidence to match their courage in asserting themselves to take leadership roles in their communities, exercise their rights, break traditional barriers that suggest women are incapable of achieving anything outside of the home, and contribute to the building of democracy in Georgia.
To illustrate some of the courageous acts taken by women, let’s briefly examine the case of displaced local resident Makvala B. After the 2008 war, Makvala took the lead in organizing food distribution for IDPs in her community, and did not yield to pressure from men to cede this job. In spite of being made homeless twice and facing physical danger and emotional distress, she held her ground and set an example for her community. Makvala now represents the NGO Women for Peace and Security, and is an IFES trainer working as part of GEN. Upon gaining respect of the men in her community, one man remarked that she had a “man’s mind,” to which Makvala replied, “I don’t have a ‘man’s’ mind – I have a normal mind and I’m using it.”
In Georgia today, these women have become elected government officials, civil society leaders, and activists bringing attention to women’s rights and the impact of continued boundary redrawing for those living in the border regions, confronting a problem that officials in Tbilisi and beyond appear powerless to address, and raising awareness of the power of the individual in making a difference. Through IFES’ work there are numerous, gratifying cases of women asserting their rights and attaining positions of status while combatting ever-present societal barriers to women’s advancement.