Terrified, scores of people listened in silence as women were sharing their recollections of grave abuses, standing in the front yard of the Government Administration in Tbilisi. The performance, involving actresses retelling true stories of sexual violence endured by minors was a culmination of a “March of 1,000 Parents,” a protest event arranged on International Women’s day to demand urgent reforms for ending sexual violence against girls and women.
The weather, unusually cold and snowy for this time of the year in Tbilisi, did not prevent the activists from marching through Tbilisi’s central Rustaveli Avenue to make their voices heard. The event was part of „a Hundred Days of Protest” – a campaign against sexual violence launched in the wake of shocking suicide reports of Nini, a 14-year-old girl from the coastal Adjara region, after alleged rape by an adult man.
The reports were particularly shocking as they exposed multiple critical issues surrounding women’s overall situation in the country. One of the most outrageous parts was that despite being aware of the crime weeks ago, law enforcers moved to arrest the suspect after the suicide reports hit the press.
Soon another arrest followed – police detained the girl’s grandfather following the reports that he physically assaulted the minor for the “shame” she brought upon her family. The fact that Nini, the underage victim, was left alone, with no parental supervision, in the face of all the hardships she had to endure, brought Georgia’s another well-known women-specific problem into the spotlight: massive emigration of female workers to make a living abroad.
Weeks after Nini’s suicide, the problem of sexual violence against minors resurfaced in March as the story of a 13-year-old giving birth shocked the public. A 50-year-old male suspect was subsequently arrested.
The campaign organizers demand legislative changes to make the absence of consent a central part of the legal definition of rape in the Criminal Code. Activists call for creating a specialized department in the prosecutor’s office to investigate allegations of sexual violence. They also want the prosecutor in charge of “Nini’s case” to be held accountable for neglecting his duties.
Further demands include increasing the number of social workers and psychologists, and making sex education part of the formal education program: “Little children cannot protect themselves from pedophilia as they do not have any information on how to defend themselves or whom to ask for help,” Baia Pataraia, women’s rights activist and one of the campaign organizers, tells Civil.ge.
Pending Consent Laws
The major concern voiced by activists is that there is no clearly formulated clause of “statutory rape” in Georgian legislation, and not all non-consensual sex is defined as rape. Article 137 of the Georgian Criminal Code defines rape as sexual penetration “using violence, the threat of violence or victim’s helpless condition.” In contrast, Article 139 leaves forcible sexual acts using threats or conditions not involving physical violence outside the definition of rape. Neither is, according to Article 140, “penetration of sexual character into a body of a person under the age of 16” is qualified as “rape” per se.
A study on the situation in Georgia prepared last year by the Public Defender’s office and the Council of Europe found that “legislative definitions of sexual violence are not based on the lack of free or voluntary consent of the victim.”
While Article 140 does partly foresee harsher sanctions than crimes under Article 137, experts and activists say, to change social and state attitudes the crimes should be called by their proper names. Addressing the Parliament days ago, Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri said there was nothing else the police could do in “Nini’s case,” and said the girl did not report any acts of violence as part of what happened to her.
The same study by the Public Defender highlighted concerns related to low reporting rates of sexual violence, administration of justice in only a small number of cases, failure to recognize sexual violence as a form of discrimination against women, and additional hurdles for survivors throughout the criminal proceedings.
Victim-blaming social attitudes, including against minors, are widely present, further aggravating the problem. This may discourage those affected to seek justice or help.
In his parliamentary address, Minister Gomelauri also mentioned that the women’s rights situation has improved over the past years. Pataraia agrees that there has “clearly been progress,” but says that the changes so far have largely bypassed sexual violence. “Merely prescribing strict sanctions means nothing, if we cannot correctly classify the crime, and if we do not even prosecute the perpetrators, which is very common in Georgia,” she adds.
Women’s rights concerns in Georgia involve diverse but often interconnected issues. A year ago, activists marked International Women’s Day by staging a performance against femicide outside Tbilisi Concert Hall – a response to growing reports at the time about women falling victims to family violence.
In 2019, women marched Tbilisi streets to demand fair working conditions with the motto “there is no unemployed woman.” The concerns voiced by activists back then included “invisible” care labor performed by women, workplace harassment, lack of welfare and fair wages, little assistance for mothers, inadequate childcare and healthcare conditions, etc.
2020 saw some general improvements: Parliament approved 1-in-4 women’s quotas in proportional lists, and amended the Labor Code, raising male engagement in childcare by extending parental leave conditions to fathers.
But the 2020 elections in Georgia did not bring about a noticeable boost in women’s representation – partly due to the opposition’s boycott and partly due to persisting reluctance by political parties to put forward more than the strict legal minimum of female candidates. Clearly, further measures are needed to help women through systemic hurdles.
In the meantime, the needs of the most vulnerable demand urgent attention. Pataraia says “100 days of protest” will continue with conferences, discussions, lectures, and debates. “If we, however, do not see any changes, any efforts on part of authorities within these 100 days, I do not rule out hitting the streets again,” she warns.