Abkhazia's Women Lament Under-Representation
Although women in Abkhazia technically enjoy the same rights as men under the law, they are hardly visible in the institutions of power.
In 2008, parliament in the Black Sea republic passed a law reinforcing sexual equality, after years of campaigning by groups like the Association of Women of Abkhazia, but little has changed as a result.
When local councils were elected last month, not a single woman mae it onto the assembly for the capital Sukhum, where there were previously six.
“This doesn’t look good for our republic, since gender equality is one of the most important indicators of a country’s development,” Natella Akaba, head of the Association of Women, said. “It looks particularly bad to have this kind of attitude to women in the capital. This wasn’t the case in Soviet times when there was a quota system, albeit an unspoken one, for women and ethnic minorities, and this resulted in a balance of interests. We have abandoned that, but we haven’t created anything new.”
In Soviet times, Abkhazia was part of the Georgian Republic, but it broke free in a 1992-93 war. Its independence has been recognised by Russia and a handful of other countries, but not by Georgia or by most of the international community.
Akaba said she thought political parties would gain more support from women voters if they reserved 20 or 30 per cent of places on the lists they compile for proportional representation for female candidates.
“The law on securing equal rights and equal opportunities for women passed two years ago was highly rated by international organisations but went almost unnoticed in Abkhazia,” she said. “And now we have to admit that in these two years, nothing has been done to make the law take effect.”
Aleksey Chagava, secretary of the political council of United Abkhazia, the ruling party, said that just 20 of the 144 candidates it put forward in the local elections were women.
“In my opinion, women should be represented more in government. It’s always hard at first, but this experience will be applied when it comes to the parliamentary election,” he said.
In other state institutions, the picture is just as gloomy for female representation. There are just four women among parliament’s 35 members, four female government ministers out of 12, and not one as head of a town or regional administration.
Batal Kobakhia, head of the parliamentary committee for human rights, agreed that something was wrong.
“The fact that there are just four women in our parliament is not an achievement, it’s a disgrace,” he said.
He acknowledged that the 2008 law had proved ineffectual, and lamented the lack of women on the new Sukhum city council.
“In the last council, the presence of women had a positive effect. It is important for both women and men to be present in various structures, so as to have different approaches to problems. We have lost this opportunity for the next four years,” he said.
Akaba would prefer to see quotas obliging parties to include more women on their electoral lists. The only obstacle, she said, would be if “men, who constitute the majority in our parliament, would want to restrict their political monopoly”.
But Irina Agrba, a deputy speaker of parliament who is one of the four female members, opposed quotas, saying it was more important to change society as a whole.
“If they aren’t getting elected, then who is to blame? Society as a whole is to blame, since it does not see women playing these roles,” she said. In Abkhazia today, women are like second-class citizens.”
While open discrimination did not exist, Agrba said there were stereotypes that held back women, and they alone would be able to break them.
“Society loves clever women. It’s just that there aren’t the political forces that might force society to pay attention to a woman capable of filling a senior position,” she said.
Abkhazia has an increasing number of women’s groups, and according to Julia Gumba, head of the Union of Women Entrepreneurs of Abkhazia, more and more women are also achieving success in business.
“There’s a dynamic in economic life – those who work in small businesses acquire capital and rise to a new level. A stall becomes a shop, then a supermarket and so on,” she said.
All the same, Gumba doubted whether businesswomen were ready yet to take part in political life.
“Right now they’re concentrating on their businesses; it’s hard to combine the two. At Civic Chamber level, we are influencing some processes,” she said.
Anaid Gogoryan works for the Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper in Abkhazia.