Georgia: Law and services on gender-based violence are ahead of social attitudes

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Vahan Abrahamyan / Shutterstock.comIt’s a serene place. Five women and their children currently reside at the domestic violence shelter.

They are escaping abusive husbands, parents, in-laws, or siblings. Their stay ranges from three months to a year, and apart from shelter and food, residents have access to a dedicated team of lawyers, counselors, social workers, and health care professionals. Perhaps more importantly, they encounter others who have also escaped violence and sought alternative lives for themselves.

These women are the lucky and courageous ones. Those who dared to make that phone call to seek help. Those who risked breaking the silence in spite of family, religious and community norms. Those who were listened to by the police, who had a ‘strong enough’ case to obtain official ‘victim’ status. This status ensured them a room in the shelter.

But the majority of women never call.
 
I’m in Tbilisi, Georgia, meeting state agencies, civil society and partner organizations to better understand the challenge of sexual and gender-based violence, and how the World Bank Group can help. This small pilot grant is part of a State- and Peace-building Fund financed Global Initiative on Gender Based Violence, which brings together projects from Nepal, Papua New Guinea, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is the first World Bank-funded initiative on sexual and gender-based violence in Georgia. It is also the first in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region.

The objective of our project is to build knowledge and institutional capacity to address sexual and gender-based violence in Georgia, with a special focus on internally displaced populations and economic empowerment. 
Yet, our Georgian counterparts are surprised to hear their country mentioned in the same sentence as countries that regularly make the headlines with stories of rampant sexual and gender-based violence. Reliable national statistics do not exist, but a 2010 study estimated that 10% of married women throughout Georgia have experienced physical violence, and 3.9% of women have experienced sexual violence. These numbers are considered to be vastly under-reported.

The Georgian authorities, supported by international partners and spurred by increasingly vocal NGOs, have made some progress in developing the legislative framework, creating support services, and raising awareness around sexual and gender-based violence. But, most of the stakeholders we have met with concede that this is in response to outside pressure, rather than from increasing awareness within society. Women continue to face strong pressure from their communities, religious leaders, and extended families to endure the violence.

There is also little recognition of what constitutes violence. In a 2013 study on Men and Gender in Georgia, more than a third of respondents believed that women who are raped have been reckless, or that rape only affects women with a ‘bad reputation.’ Half the respondents believe that if a women does not physically resist, it cannot be considered rape.

So, is there anything specific to the violence in Georgia? When we posed the question to Dr. Nana Sumbadze, from the Institute of Policy Studies, she paused, and provided a parable. On the surface, she said, some societies may seem more respectful, more gender-aware and more equal. Decades of gains by women’s rights activists have resulted in a lower tolerance for abuse, sound institutional policies, and health, legal, and financial support services for survivors. But, strong winds can blow away these carefully crafted but often superficial responses, and, in Georgia, “the wind blows all the time.”
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