"I was accused of being a spy"
For more than two decades, Julia Kharashvili has been working for women’s rights in Georgia. A work that has born fruit. Today the organisation she co-founded – Association “Imedi” IDP women’s movement for peace – is an important civil society platform and Julia Kharashvili is known to most people within the nonprofit sector.
It was only in recent years that Julia Kharashvili was allowed to have a public voice. Her work has not always been accepted, neither by the government nor by the general public. During her 20 years as an activist, Julia Kharashvili has had tough setbacks and there have been moments of darkness and deepest doubt, she says.
So what is it that makes a person continue fighting despite threats and hate? Julia Kharashvili explains that for her it is a voice within that makes her carry on. A voice that always has told her to get back up, a voice that she can not either explain or deny.
What made you decide to get involved in women’s rights?
“When the Soviet Union fell, we were all thrown into chaos – a chaos that only grew worse with the armed conflicts that followed. My husband and I were living in the Abkhazia region, but when the civil war started, my husband was forced to become a soldier and fight for the ethnic Georgians’ side. For a long time we were separated and the letters he sent came months apart, so most of the time I did not know if he was dead or alive. Like most women who are left behind, I could not sleep at night, and the war began to affect me psychologically. Then, one day, I realized that the best way to help myself was to help others. My husband and I were later forced to flee to Georgia, where in 1993 I started working as a volunteer with humanitarian aid. We simply could not sit and wait for help to come to us, we had to help ourselves.”
What is the focus of your activism?
“My organisation works in many ways to help women. Because of the conflict constantly being present and occasionally flaring up again, we have conducted several studies of the effects of the war on women. In Zugdidi, about 60 000 refugees from Abkhazia are living in difficult conditions. We focus on improving their situation through legal and psychological support.
Right now, we are also running the campaign All women’s right to a home. In Georgia, many divorced women are living in the streets. According to the legislation, a church wedding is not enough for a woman to achieve equal rights to the assets within a marriage – for that, a civil ceremony is also required. This is something that many women are not aware of and which many men deliberately hide from their wives. So, upon a divorce, the woman has no legal right to their joint home, and risk becoming homeless. We run this campaign together with 30 other organisations and to our great joy we have gained the government’s attention. This raises hope of a different future and is just one of many proof that women are key agents of change.”
Have you been subjected to violence or intimidation because of your activism?
“When I and other women started working for women’s rights in Georgia, we were called a number of things. I was subjected to political violence and accused of being a spy. To stand up for women’s rights simply was not legal. It went so far that in 1996, I was close to being thrown in jail because of my belief in human equality. But I managed to convince the government and other organisations that we have to work together for any progress to be possible. Although being involved in activism and organising was dangerous, me and my fellow sisters never hesitated. In the beginning, we did not really know what we were doing, we only knew that it dealt with something basic that existed within us.”
What is the situation like today?
“Recently, violence in our society has increased, which is terrifying. It complicates our efforts to cooperate across national borders. Therefore, we are grateful that The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation is our partner, because they are unique when it comes to emphasizing the importance of women from both sides of a conflict working together. That gives us hope for the future. However, it is still difficult for a woman to gain space. Unfortunately, in 9 cases out of 10, men’s voices are higher valued than women’s. For the world to change, it requires all of us living on mother earth to do everything we can. We have to take our responsibility individually, as groups and politically. However, a prerequisite for this is that women are allowed to take that responsibility.
If you had the power to change one thing; what would it be?
“Either the power to stop epidemics or the power to stop all wars worldwide. They are two evils, both of which destroy mankind and need to be stopped. I simply can not choose. We have to defeat them both.”
What is your greatest wish?
“To be able to return home to Abkhazia. Which I know probably won’t be possible. But for me personally that would mean peace for my soul.”
Updated in: 2014-10-30