By SALOME KOBALAVA
When suffrage movements around the world were fighting to secure women the right to vote in the 1920s, Georgia was ahead of many. The Democratic Republic of Georgia held its first parliamentary elections in 1919, sending five women to the country’s 145-seat Constituent Assembly.
But that huge leap has been followed by tiny steps. Nearly 100 years on, women hold only 16 percent of the Georgian parliament’s 150 seats.
Government measures to curb gender discrimination and defend women’s rights do not appear to have made much difference. Today, Georgia ranks 76th out of 188 countries in the 2016 United Nations Gender Inequality Index.
Women in rural areas, like in the western region of Samegrelo, are particularly susceptible to socio-cultural barriers that hold them back from political participation and economic opportunities. Yet in Samegrelo, as elsewhere, a few women are pushing the boundaries and redefining traditional gender roles.
Edita Kodua, 43, Politician/Tamada
When Edita Kodua proclaimed a few years ago that she would renounce her seat in a local city council unless her village, Abastumani, was included in a list of publicly funded infrastructure projects, her political career took off.
In 2014, Kodua had run as an independent candidate to represent Abastumani’s 1,000-odd residents on the council of Zugdidi, Samegrelo’s regional seat. Defeating three male contenders, she became one of four women on the 42-seat municipal council, or sakrebulo. During the first session, she spoke up for her community and her strong stand caught many by surprise.
Yet it worked. What followed was the repair of electricity, natural gas and water systems, along with village roads, sports and cultural facilities. Kodua involvedvoters in decision-making and gained a stronger political persona.She was re-elected to the council this October.
But on a daily basis, this 43-year-old multi-tasker juggles more than politics. A schoolteacher, she looks after three children, manages the family’s farm and two small businesses in Zugdidi.
Kodua has also broken the glass ceiling in more private settings– she is a respected tamada or toastmaster.
A tamada is as essential to the supra, the traditional Georgian banquet, as the supra is to Georgia’s social life. For centuries, the designated leader of the feast – the person who regales guests with inspiring toasts, stories, poetry, and songs — has been a man.
“[To become a tamada] was a conscious move,” explains Kodua, “[to show] that we women are no less capable than men; that neither being a tamada nor being in politics is an exclusively masculine job . . .”
Iruza Kakava, 45, Politician/Social Entrepreneur
In 2014, Iruza Kakava entered a room with 40 men who were resolute that she should not become a politician.They had other people in mind. But Kakava walked out with their support and, weeks later, won over local voters as well when she was elected to the Zugdidi municipal council.
Re-election came in October 2017. Kakava, who represents the villages of Koki and Khurcha for the ruling Georgian Dream party, is one of only seven female members of the Zugdidi municipal council.
The 45-year-old had to cross two borders before becoming the woman she is today.
In 1993, at the age of 21, she fled her hometown of Gali in war-scarred Abkhazia with her two little brothers, eight and 12 years old. They left behind the graves of their parents and a burnt house. Ahead, Kakava had an entire life to rebuild.
After crossing the Enguri River, she settled in the Samegrelo village of Koki, not far from Akbhazia. She married a man who backed her from the start. The couple had two children.
Kakava fought two battles: trying to support her family and trying to get an education. While caring for her brothers and children, she enrolled in university and, at 30,received a degree in English.
Then came the second barrier, a social one. Kakava engaged in developing her community and founded a local NGO and foundation to support the socially and economically disadvantaged. As someone who knows what it means not to have a home, she works with the council’s housing and social affairs committees to try and guarantee a home for every homeless family in the villages she represents.
During just over three years of work on the council, “I have seen that one woman equals 20 men,” she explains. In the villages she represents, women oftentimes outnumber men during public meetings. “If there’s anything accomplished in our district, it is thanks to the women.”
Lamzira Rapava, 72, Beekeeper/Entrepreneur
Seventy-two-year-old Lamzira Rapava drives her car from the flat highways of central Zugdidi to the mountain roads of Samegrelo remarkably smoothly. But she is used to venturing onto rough roads. She started doing that at 37, when, following a colleague’s advice, she decided to get into honey-making.
In 1982, neither beekeeping nor a female beekeeper was common in her village, Djumi (formerly known as Kolkhida).
“He told [me and other women] that if we learnt how to take care of bees, we would always have extra income,” she says of the colleague. “I asked my husband to help me get a few bee hives. I didn’t have to ask twice. He brought a few beehives immediately.”
In Georgia, breeding bees remains a masculine job, involving heavy physical labor, so social custom has it that men are better suited for it. But hard work never held off Rapava, who, in 2016, founded a women-led beekeeping cooperative, Nektari-2016 with other two female farmers — her sister, Dali, and Tinatin Bulia, the coop’s chairwoman. Nektari’s six male members, half of the total group, got on board only later.
As the car approaches Djumi, high above western Georgia’s coastal plains, Bulia points at a large field of tall, yellow flowers. They are the secret behind the cooperative’s increased honey harvest — goldenrod, a non-endemic honey plant.
Rapava has ambitious plans, and retiring is not one of them. Laboratory tests carried out in Latvia have confirmed the purity and quality of the cooperative’s products. She wants to introduce nomadic beekeeping (which involves moving beehives according to the season and flowers in bloom), grow specific honey plants, open a shop, and finally, start to export to foreign markets.
“It is easy to fall in love with [the bees],” she maintains.
Indeed, they provide a sense of purpose in her life. “[Beekeeping] has embellished my older years . . .I try to be strong in this business,” she says. “I want to have my own place even at such an old age as mine.
Photos by Ian McNaught Davis, editing by Monica Ellena