Inspiring Women from the South Caucasus

Article, 08.03.2018

Shushana Putkaradze at Women's Business Forum in Batumi, Georgia.
Shushana Putkaradze at Women's Business Forum in Batumi, Georgia. © SCO South Caucasus

Shushana from Georgia

A Georgian word „diasakhlisi” (a housewife) is referred to a woman who manages household chores and takes care of her family. When we met with Shushana Putkaradze at the Women’s Business Forum held in Ajara Autonomous Republic in January 2017, she presented herself as a teacher, an entrepreneur and a housewife, by the latter she meant taking care of her guests.

49 years old and a mother of three, Shushana is a role model for many in the Paposhvilebi village, Suakhevi in the upper Ajara. A place with a picturesque landscape, flora and fauna has always been a subject of pride among locals. Over recent years the village has become a destination for many tourists as well. With a growing number of visitors there sprang a need for a comfortable accommodation. It was only then and out of need for more income that Shushana started to flirt with the idea to register a guest house.

“It was my idea and would remain an idea if not unwavering support from my family,” says Sushana. “We – my husband and I, and our three kids – shared roles and functions, as we could not afford a helping hand. Customers’ service was an unfamiliar notion for us, so we treated all as family guests. They enjoyed staying with us and being involved in agricultural activities: milking, cheese making and harvesting. In no time our small house became a popular place to stay in.”

Popularity brought more tourists and a need for expansion. Shushana decided to apply for the Georgian Government’s grants programme “Produce in Georgia”.

“I had a goal but also a big challenge before me – I did not know how to write a business proposal. I’ve tried many times but all for naught. Finally, in 2016 with the help of a Women’s Room at the Shuakhevi municipality I wrote a successful business proposal that received a grant worth GEL 10’000. With this money I expanded my business, bought household items and furniture.”

The guest house “Mareti” is the main source of income for the Putkaradze’s family and the only source of income for some neighbours from whom Shushana buys milk and other agricultural products.

“This business is not only source of income for me, but source of new friends and new opportunities as well. I encourage all the women in my village to start a business, have their own income as it will boost their self-confidence and keep their families in the village.”

Women’s Rooms were supported by the SDC-funded ALCP programme with an aim to increase women’s participation in decision-making.  The Rooms serve as a resource and consultancy space, where local women can get access to municipal information and services including on health care and agricultural programmes.

Local politician
For 14 years Lusine has been involved in Politics in her Karahunj community, Armenia © SCO South Caucasus

Lusine from Armenia

For already 14 years, Lusine Avetyan has been actively involved in the politics of the Karahunj community situated in the Marz of Syunik, Armenia. Previously, Lusine has been the community Mayor. After the territorial and administrative reform, due to a higher competition for the post of the enlarged community’s Mayor, Lusine took the role of the administrative head of Karahunj settlement of the enlarged Goris municipality.

Being an engineer by background, and having managerial work experience, Lusine took the chance and nominated her candidacy. To do something good for her village motivated and inspired her in taking part in the elections. As the only woman among the other candidates Lusine faced a high competition, but never gave up. Eventually, Lusine got elected as the community Mayor in 2002.

“Syunik is a traditional marz, and it is difficult for a woman to be acknowledged in politics. At the beginning people bewildered saying that I cannot perform, however, throughout the years I managed to distinguish our community from others,” she says.

By setting up a wonderful school and a kindergarten, solving the problems of asphalting, construction of lighting network, sewage line, Lusine was able to improve the public service delivery by the municipality thus break the stereotypes that women are not able to deal with issues that require interference of men. From then on, when talking about women in politics, Lusine Avetyan's example was always highlighted. "They would say, ‘just look at Karahunj, the hands of a woman have touched the village; see how beautiful it is.’ After all Lusine believes that the experience and the knowledge are the key to success, especially for women in politics.

In the community of Karahunj the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, together with partnering international organizations, contribute to the development of different fields which vary from municipal economic development planning to cattle breeding and pasture management. Two Swiss funded projects “Improvement of the Local Self-Governance System in Armenia” and “Livestock Development in the South of Armenia” are being implemented in the region.

gender equality speciality
Shahla Ismayil is one of the most respected women human rights defenders and gender advocates in Azerbaijan © SCO South Caucasus

Shahla from Azerbaijan

What does it take to be a gender equality advocate in Azerbaijan? If you ask this question to Shahla Ismayil, who is a prominent gender equality advocate, she would say: “it is not easy, but it is very important!”

Shahla treats every case of women rights violation as human rights violation and she is never tired repeating that women should get empowered – socially, politically, economically – in order to play a more significant role in the life of the country.

Shahla Ismayil is one of the most respected and experienced women human rights defenders and gender advocates in Azerbaijan. She is passionate about Azerbaijan and wants to contribute to the country’s development through women’s empowerment and participation. She says working in this field is a moral imperative for her and nothing will stop her from fulfilling this task she chose for herself. Being a 2010 Bill Maynes fellow of the US-based Eurasia Foundation, as well as 2005 John Smith Fellow (UK), Shahla has been the author and director of more than 100 projects and programs in the field of human rights and gender equality. She has published more than 120 articles and publications both within the country and outside it. Her cooperation portfolio includes a list of over 50 international institutions, including UN agencies, EU, OSCE, Council of Europe, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, USAID, Asian Development Bank and many others. Currently, she chairs Women’s Association for Rational Development (WARD), established in 2002, which has 4 priority programs – gender equality, economic development, healthcare and peacebuilding. Shahla is also the Attorney of Human Rights House Foundation in Azerbaijan and the country advisor for two grant-making women foundations.

On the eve of 8 March International Women’s Day, we asked Shahla what worried her most in Azerbaijan nowadays. She said outmigration is a big challenge and this disturbs her a lot, as when people leave, their determination for improvement also diminishes. “Poor records on the overall quality of education and healthcare reduces the space for equal access and decent services in these areas. Both men and women of Azerbaijan tend to leave the country for better education opportunities and healthcare services. Some leave forever and it is so sad to observe this migration, because we are at the moment when every single citizen matters. Escaping from the problems for a better life will never lead us to a solution. We have to switch from personal level to the national one. We have to seek for better solutions for the whole country, not only for our families. This is the most alarming issue for me now.”

In the light of this difficult situation, we also asked her about women’s position in Azerbaijan. She said: “If you compare with 10-15 years ago, the situation regarding women’s rights in Azerbaijan has changed to the better in some areas – more opportunities, more emancipation, more awareness and more acknowledgment. These improvements could be obtained through systematic joint efforts of the government, civil society, mass media and international organizations. However, some areas have obvious declines. For example, the sex-selective abortions: with introduction of modern technology and the overall reduction of fertility rate over the last decade we observe the sad consequences of this purely patriarchal and ugly phenomenon. The dominating son-preference made Azerbaijan getting the second place for sex-ratio gap in the world. And this patriarchal approach mirrors the deeply-rooted stereotypes in society – restrictions, perceptions, violence…. There is still a long way to go - how can we claim for gender equality if the sex-selective abortion remains a top issue on human rights agenda?! For instance, we want more women to be represented in our parliament, but in order to achieve this, a woman should be born first!”

Despite of all current difficulties and challenges, Shahla is optimistic about the future of the country for its main resource – the people. She also believes that the national values - honesty, courage, wisdom, dignity – will support the citizens to withstand the hard circumstances and they will ultimately enjoy the bright future they deserve.

The Swiss Cooperation Office in Azerbaijan has worked with Shahla Ismayil to design a very useful book for business women entitled “101 rules for business women” and to conduct a gender assessment survey, the findings of which will be used as baseline data for a major women’s economic empowerment project in Azerbaijan.