Speaking Hope to Power in Pankisi

Lia Kavterashvili’s small, attractive guest house has remained active and thriving throughout the pandemic, an exception to many small businesses in Georgia. In a way, the pandemic even benefited this business in the village of Jokolo in the Pankisi Gorge.

“Some of my guests were here and because of the travel ban they couldn't go home. So they were forced to stay here for several months, which is sad for them, but is good for me,” Kavterashvili said with a smile.

Lia, 45, fled from Chechnya to Pankisi with her husband and son in 1999, during the second Russian-Chechen war.

“We lost everything in Chechnya. We started a new life from zero in the Pankisi Gorge. It was hard because my husband got sick on the road from Chechnya. He died five years ago,” she said.

Kavterashvili taught history to the children of IDPs from Chechnya until she and other school staff were laid off in 2013. Losing her job paradoxically turned her life around.

“When I  became unemployed I started to attend events at the Women’s Club and trainings run by the Kakheti Regional Development Foundation. They helped me a lot. I learned how to write projects and studied social entrepreneurship,” she said.


Development by Women, for Women


In recent years, businesses and activities run by women have become increasingly visible in the Pankisi Gorge, an area mostly populated by Chechens and Kists –Chechen-speaking descendants of Chechens and Ingush who settled here in the 19th century. In the higher valleys of the area, Kists, who number around 9,000, make up three-quarters of the population. It’s a conservative, mainly Muslim enclave in majority-Christian Georgia. The gorge is linked by mountain passes to the southern Russian region of Chechnya, where many local people have family. Family traditions are considered sacred and extended family bonds are strong. Traditional local values and Islamic practices are dominant in the region. However, women of Pankisi are successfully challenging the old “mountain” laws and traditions. Whoever you ask in Pankisi how the changes happened; they will mention the Kakheti Regional Development Foundation, or KRDF.


Eventually, after Lia Kavterashvili was able to build a house with the financial help of the UN refugee agency, the germ of a business plan sprouted. She had taken part in several KRDF projects and then applied for and won funding to open a guest house in her home.

“That was two years ago, and everything is going well. This year I also got a new grant from the Kakheti Regional Development Foundation and that allowed me to invest in the business. I bought new furniture and stuff for my guest house. Both foreigners and local tourists come here.”

Lia Kavterashvili is not the only businesswoman in the area. Maia Kavterashvili, 52, Lia’s cousin, also received a grant from KRDF to support her guest house in the nearby village of Duisi. She is now busy renovating the house.

“It’s not enough just to have an idea. You need to write the project, which is very important for starting a business. Even if you know how to write the project but don't write it well, you will not win [a grant]. If it were not for the training and workshops and the help from KRDF, I wouldn't have achieved all this. When they gave me funds for raising and taking care of my cows, it helped me a lot. And it’s not only financial support, but also psychological support,” Maia Kavterashvili said.

KRDF is the brainchild of Iza Bekauri. Half Kist and half Georgian, she grew up in the community observing all the problems and issues that women face there.

“In 2008, when I was  working with Chechen refugees, it became more obvious to me that I needed to take steps to empower women in Pankisi,” Bekauri said.

That year, KRDF opened a community education center in Duisi. In 2014, the Women's Club opened in Jokolo. In 2020, a third women’s center opened in the village of Omalo. Before the pandemic struck, Kist women would get together at the centers, read newspapers, and discuss problems in the Gorge. The centers are gradually returning to full activity as pandemic restrictions ease. Women come to the centers for classes, vocational courses, meetings, and consultation on legal and business matters. The centers also serve as gathering places where people can meet government representatives.

In recent years, however, the growth of fundamentalist Islam in the area has put a stop to concerts and other cultural events, Bekauri said.


The Sweet Taste of Entrepreneurship


Guest houses are not the only businesses to benefit from cooperation with KRDF.

Manana Margoshvili, 53, from Jokolo, raises bees and makes honey.

She first tried raising bees 15 years ago, with little knowledge of the craft. “So the bees got sick and they all died. But I didn't give up. After two years I bought two new hives. In 2012 I got a grant from KRDF and I bought new hives. I learned a lot from the seminars about honey production. Practice is interesting, but it's better to know the theory first,” she said.

As Bekauri tells the story, KRDF’s success in Pankisi was earned step by step, as people gradually warmed to the organization. It helped that she knew the local language and traditions. “In addition to this people saw that we were doing a good job and not harming their traditions,” she said. Men too gradually lost their suspicion of a women-run organization. Before KRDF was established, local customs barred women from most work. Those women who had jobs typically worked in schools and kindergartens. “But nowadays if they work for an NGO, this is okay and it's not considered a bad thing. Now husbands trust our organization,” Bekauri added.

According to Bekauri, several hundred women participate in training sessions and KRDF projects every year. KRDF now employs 34 salaried women staff, and has awarded grants and other support to at least 550 women in recent years, she added.


Working With the Patriarchy


KRDF does not just support the economic development of Pankisi. It sees its role also as pushing for changes to protect women’s rights and give women a voice. Decision-making in the gorge is largely in the hands of men, who act through the Council of Elders, the traditional mediator of disputes.

More than that, the council is the valley's local court and leading legal institution, respected by all. Its members govern the affairs of the residents of Pankisi according to Muslim family law. The Council of Elders also deals with more sensitive issues, such as blood revenge. Only the most respected men are elected to this council, selected from the different local clans, and no women are allowed to join.

The situation changed in 2011 when Iza Bekauri and other influential and respected women of Pankisi formed an alternative body they called the Council of Women. For any such initiative to succeed the approval of the men's council had to be secured. It was not easy, but Bekauri said she managed to gain their trust. 

“I knew the language and I started to walk around the villages and talk to the female leaders of their communities, those whose words would carry weight and force in the Gorge. We found 25 women and presented them to the elderly men. In the beginning it was a hard decision for them to agree even to discuss it, because in Kist culture women can't even sit next to men at the table. The creation of a body consisting of women and raising women’s concerns was something unprecedented for men. Initially they resisted, but the women could be flexible during the negotiations. They managed to persuade the men that they would also benefit from the presence of this council,” she said.

One significant achievement where the Council of Women “played a key role,” according to Maya Kurtsikidze from UNICEF Georgia, was the joint decision by both men's and women's councils to remove religious sanction for marriages between youths under 18.

In Pankisi, people prefer to resolve disputes within the community rather than go to formal institutions. Before the creation of the Council of Women, the Council of Elders was the only local mediator of disputes, and its decisions tended to favor men, as for instance in divorce cases, when custody of children inevitably was awarded to the father.

All the women councilors are over 45 years of age. The body functions in much the same way as the men's council. Members deal with issues such as domestic violence, forced marriage, inheritance, child custody after divorce, and polygamy.

The Council of Women, unlike its male counterpart, is not a decision-making body. It acts as a mediator between women and men. It helps women to present their problems before the Council of Elders, which makes the final decision. When it comes to making changes to local law, the Council of Women makes recommendations which will further be taken into consideration by the Council of Elders. Both councils work together to close the gaps between local law, which incorporates elements of Muslim Sharia law, and national legislation. Georgian police operate in the gorge, and a court hears cases in the nearby town of Akhmeta. However, local people rarely seek redress from formal law enforcement institutions, preferring to resolve disputes according to their traditions and customary usage.

The Women's Council, alongside other actors including local community groups, youth activists, the KRDF, and Pankisi community radio.

have grown into important roles in the gorge, Kurtsikidze said.

These groups are working “to shift the mindset that directs the patriarchal society to mainstream human rights-based approaches. We have been working with these organizations to develop child rights-based approaches in the region,” she added. 



“We Will Not Give Women the Right to Participate”


The traditional balance of forces between the sexes strongly favors men. Khaso Margoshvili, a member of the Council of Elders, said Kist women in Pankisi never act independently.

“They always ask elderly men. There are a number of issues where we will not give women the right to participate. It comes from ancient times: woman has her own corner in social life, man has his own. Man has his own obligations; a woman has her own obligations too. Discussing serious issues is a man’s job, yet we delegate the rest of the issues to women,” he said.

In the beginning some on the Council of Elders opposed the creation of a women's council, but the nay-sayers were soon won over.

“We realized that men sometimes don’t understand women’s issues. Women understand each other better and solve their problems themselves. So I think the creation of the women's council is in everyone’s interest,” Margoshvili said.

“This is a community where everybody knows everybody. Women now do not have to go to men for help. Now they directly go to the women's council. … The women's council is not the decision maker, but they participate in the process. Otherwise women wouldn't have a chance to be heard,” Bekauri said. 

The Pankisi Council of Women is the only body of its kind in any Georgian Muslim community, she added.

In 2016, the men's and women's councils joined forces to update the local legal codex.

Working together, without input from Georgian authorities, they agreed on changes touching especially women and family life.

Women's council member Guliko Khangoshvili said the revised code gave women significantly more say over their lives. The code now allows divorced women more access to their children, for instance.

“We had a case last year where we made an agreement that a child [of divorced parents] can see the mother several days a week,” she said. “Before, this was  not possible under local law.”

Under the old law, fathers, husbands, and brothers made all decisions on a woman's behalf, she said.

“But we have improved it so women also can have a voice in some situations. Another change affects inheritance,” she continued. “Before, women couldn't inherit anything from their family. We changed this and women can now get something from their family.”

The two councils also agreed to increase the amount men must pay their wife's family before a marriage can take place. “We also updated the law to say that if the man is not local, he should pay more, and also sign the marriage contract. Because there were many cases of girls being the third or fourth wife without knowing it,”  Khangoshvili said.

According to UNICEF  Georgia, current studies show that marriages of girls aged 16 or 17 remain frequent. The traditional stereotype still persists in the gorge that a girl is ready for marriage after leaving school, sometimes before graduating. 

The decision to end religious endorsement for early marriages is a positive development, UNICEF's Kurtsikidze said.

“This trend should be encouraged and built upon to provide girls with more opportunities to develop their skills and socialize,” she said.