On Being a Woman in Georgia

Photos of just a few of the amazing Georgian women I’ve met.

I wanted to take an opportunity to step back from sharing my day to day life and talk about the part of Georgian culture that will probably have the most lasting resonance with me, being a woman in Georgia. I’ve been a feminist since my college years. But it was always something in the background. It informed who I was, who I chose as my partner, and how I worked. But it wasn’t something I was particularly vocal about. Georgia has changed that for me. Here are just a few facts to show you why:

From a survey conducted by UNDP Georgia in 2013:

  • 95% of women report being solely responsible for all household duties
  • 63% of women report doing most of child care
  • 88% of Georgians believe that a man should be the breadwinner
  • 28% of women live with their husband’s family

And here are thoughts on women’s roles in the family vs. their careers from the same survey.

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So, Georgia is a very traditional society. Much like the US in the 1950s. And one could argue that perhaps there is nothing wrong with a traditional division of labor in a marriage. It certainly makes life less complicated. But, setting aside the lack of opportunity for self-realization for these women, if you dig into the actual lived Georgian experience a little more closely, you’ll realize the result of these “traditions” is that women get the short end of the stick and are often in environments where they lack support. Let me explain.

The biggest problem in Georgia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s is unemployment. During Soviet times, a large number of Georgians worked in factories. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, nearly all of those factories shut down. And no industry has taken its place. In talking with Georgians about how this impacted their families, I’ve heard stories about how men, having had good paying jobs previously, refused to take jobs that they deemed beneath them and often fell into alcoholism and depression. But women, compelled by the need to feed their families, took whatever jobs they could to bring in some money. Now, I know many fellow volunteers who have traditional families in which the woman stays home and the man works. But I’ve never known one of these families. One family I know well is a two-woman-run household. The household was made up of a mother and her mother-in-law and her two sons in their early twenties. The mother is a teacher and tutors on the side to make ends meet. The mother-in-law, in her mid-sixties, spends 4-days a week caring for and cooking for an elderly woman in town. One son is at University. And the other spends his time mostly with his friends. Where is the father? He left the family for Ukraine six years ago and hasn’t been back. He doesn’t send money. Another family I know, is a little different, but still led by a strong woman. The woman is a doctor and University lecturer. Her son just graduated from University last spring. I’m not sure what he is up to since. The father is a painter of the artistic variety. But he also drinks. A lot. So, all of the financial and household responsibilities fell on the woman. I’ve known many families like this. Where women are struggling to make ends meet with the men either absent or more of a burden than a help.

So, getting back to those statistics, when tradition demands that women take care of the household and children, and men be the breadwinners, what happens when men aren’t providing financially? Does a man step up and take on the home responsibilities? No, he doesn’t. Because to do so would make him less of a man. At GLOW camp this winter, we were talking about gender roles, and a girl from a village asked me what I would think if my husband did dishes. “Wouldn’t you think he was less of a man?” This attitude is pervasive here. Which means that women do much of the work in Georgia while many men sit back and do little or nothing. But women don’t earn respect for all of the work they do. Men are still considered the head of the household even if they don’t contribute. And women are rarely in high positions in Georgia. Georgian women make up only 12% of high positions in Georgian ministries despite the fact they they tend to be the most educated and driven.

Let’s also go back to the statistic that 28% of women live with their in-laws. Let’s think about this in terms of what it means for support. In some very meaningful ways, it can be a good thing for women. Living with her mother-in-law, a young mother can have help in caring for the children and doing household duties. However, what if the marriage is less than ideal? What if there is physical or emotional violence? What support is there when you are surrounded by your husband’s family. Below are some facts on marriage and violence in Georgia from a study done by the United Nations Population Fund conducted from 2008-2011.

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Domestic violence is a serious problem here in Georgia. This past fall, there were a number of rallies around the country to raise awareness of uxoricide (the act of murdering one’s wife). Last year there were 23 deaths of women at the hands of their husbands. That in a country of only four million people! When women are removed from their own families, and surrounded by the husband’s family, they are often left without any support in such situations. And given that domestic violence is considered a family affair, neighbors and friends don’t often come to a woman’s aid. In fact, often the police fail to intervene as well. I once heard a story about an improv group that did a performance in which a man was screaming and hitting a woman in front of a police station in Tbilisi, the capital. The police looked the other way.

Another particularly heinous practice that is beginning to die out in Georgia but still happens in villages today is bridenapping. This is an old custom in which a man meets a woman, more often a girl, he likes and just picks her up and runs away with her. They spend the night together and, by Georgian standards, they are now married. The girl has no way out of this situation because to return to her family would bring shame on her and her family since she is presumed to have lost her virginity. More on that in a bit. In the case of bridenapping, the girl is now trapped in a marriage with a virtual stranger and forced to make it work. Often she is young and hasn’t even finished school. Depending on the husband’s wishes, she may not finish school. Her entire life determined on one man’s whim.

So back to the virginity thing. As I said above, without her virginity, an unwed woman is worthless in Georgia. This belief remains strong here even amongst the young. While boys are often brought to brothels at 16 by their fathers or their uncles, girls are expected to remain virgins until married. And after marriage, sex is largely for procreation for women. Thus, men often continue the habit of visiting brothels or have mistresses, while it is assumed good women have very little interest in sex.

Yet, there is evidence to the contrary in the rush to marry.The average courtship in Georgia is about 3 months since premarital sex is out of the question. The decision to marry is sadly often made based on physical desires rather than compatibility. And once married, divorce is very rare. If divorced, although it isn’t unusual for men to remarry, most women will never marry again. The reasons go back to the idealization of virginity. A woman who is no longer a virgin is considered unmarriageable by most Georgians, both men and women. Which leads us to another point that I’ve come to realize in Georgia. Women are just as guilty of perpetuating these traditions as men. They buy into and promote the ideas of being a “good girl” (following all of the traditions) and traditional ideas of masculinity. Mothers raise their sons as little princes and their daughters to learn to work and not expect much. And the cycle continues.

This is why working with GLOW, the girls leadership NGO that I helped found, is so important to me. During our camp, we talk to the girls about gender based violence, gender roles, and healthy relationships. We also empower them to take leadership roles in their schools and communities. After attending camp, many of these girls go back and do presentations on these topics in their communities educating their peers. GLOW serves girls ages 13-17, the prime time to reach them with these messages. Many of them may be married within a few years. If we can get them to think about what they want in a partner, they may be less likely to make choices based on superficial and fleeting factors. Perhaps if we can help them change their expectations of a partner and marriage, it will lead to changes throughout Georgia over time. Perhaps they’ll begin to demand more of the men in their lives and also demand equality. They’ve earned it.

I’m going to make one final pitch to ask you to support GLOW’s campaign which ends this Friday, March 27. Only 4 days left and we are only half way to our goal. We are raising money to start a small grants program which will allow our GLOW Ambassadors, the most active and dedicated of our GLOW alumnae, to apply for funding for their community projects. These girls have done some great projects in their communities with no funding. Imagine the impact they could have if they had access to funds to print materials, promote their events, and purchase supplies. So, please consider giving whatever you can today. I really do believe that GLOW is making a difference for the next generation of women in Georgia while also helping them to have an impact on their entire communities. While they often do gender related projects and presentations, they also do projects around the environment, peer pressure and bullying, project development, HIV and Hepatitis C, and other important topics. Help us help them have an even greater impact in Georgia.

I want to close on a positive note. Despite the disadvantage that women have in Georgian society, this country is filled with amazing, strong women. At my organization, which is almost entirely women, they are doing incredible work to improve conditions for the disabled, inspire youth, and build democracy. With GLOW, I work with strong women from our director and board, to our counselors and interns, our GLOW Ambassadors and campers. At Peace Corps, everyone from our doctors, to our program managers, safety & security director, and administrative staff are examples of dedicated, hard working Georgian women. And a special shout out to Nino, our safety & security director, who I couldn’t find a photo of. She is a particularly bad-ass woman. And of course my host moms and grandma who provided me with so much support and friendship in my early days here in Georgia. All of these women are the reason that I’m passionate about GLOW and feminism.


4 thoughts on “On Being a Woman in Georgia

  1. Wow, so much to do. It’s going to take a long time to change these ancient memes. But you raise a good point about the women raising the boys. They have the first opportunity to teach them the best ways to treat the girls and what kind of respect they should have. Keep up the good work. You will make a difference that will last long after you are gone.

  2. Thanks, Roy! For Peace Corps volunteers the idea a difference in the long run is what we count on. Because it is so hard to see the difference while we are here. Thank you for your support!

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