World news story

The real story of women in the North Caucasus and the work of New Horizons in Russia.

On International Women’s Day, 8 March, we will talk about the real story of women in the North Caucasus and the work of New Horizons in Russia - helping women in difficult situations.

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For many of us, 8 March is the only day of the year when men undertake household duties so that women can take a break from their usual chores. It is also the day when flowers and gifts are offered to mothers, girlfriends, wives, grandmothers, granddaughters, and colleagues. Although gender equality is something that we might talk about today, many regard ‘International Women’s Day’ as the ‘Day of Spring’, or a day to celebrate women’s beauty and tenderness. So we decided to take this opportunity to talk about what really matters: the real story of women and the work that New Horizons do in order to help women in a variety of difficult situations.

A bouquet of red or blue roses, a box of chocolate, jewelry … what woman does not appreciate that? But what about the Chechen women’s roles in society?

From childhood most girls in the North Caucasus are taught to be modest, respectful, hard-working and obedient. Many girls grow up with a sense of permanent guilt and fear of disappointing their families. They suffer from low self-esteem and often face difficulties when taking important decisions in their lives.

There are still families that do not allow their daughters and sisters to study at university; and young women cannot choose the professions they want. One of the most brilliant and bravest female lawyers in Chechnya, Ayza Akhmadova, graduated from medical school before she decided to study law because her older brother believed that law was not for women. After graduation, she gave her medical diploma to her parents and secretly enrolled into law school. She says she was lucky to get her mother’s support.

When two devastating wars hit the Chechen region in 1994 and 1999, many women took an active role in conflict resolution. Thousands of women regularly gathered to protest against war and illegal kidnappings. As a result most of the grassroots NGOs were created by courageous women leaders in Chechnya such as “Mothers of Chechnya”, “Ekho Kavkaza” and others.

Now the war is over. However, many Chechen women still suffer from domestic violence and problems linked to property rights. A woman is always at a disadvantage if she divorces her husband with the hardest challenge being denied custody of her children; no matter what the courts rule, the father always has the right to take the children. As a result, many women do not initiate divorce, even if they suffer in their marriage, because they know they may never see their children again.

ITo help those women who often become victims of social norms and a legal system, which is unable to protect them, New Horizons launched a project to assist women seeking child custody after divorce by providing legal and psychological assistance. One of our clients, Maryam* , is a survivor of domestic violence. She suffered from physical and psychological abuse for many years. One day she decided that she had had enough and filed for divorce. She took her infant daughter, Zarema* and left. A few days later, her former husband visited her parents’ home and took her daughter away.

Maryam decided to fight for custody to get Zarema back. First she tried to negotiate with her ex-husband and his family to find a compromise. She wanted her child to grow up knowing both of her parents. However, neither the man nor his family listened. They insisted - the child should stay with the father’s family. The main argument was that Maryam would sooner or later marry again and will not need her daughter anymore, so they thought it would be better to keep the child with the father.

Maryam kept fighting. Her friends told her about an NGO that helps divorced mothers. New Horizons provided Maryam with a lawyer who worked pro bono and helped take the case to the court. The court made a decision in favour of the mother. But her ex-husband refused to hand back the child.

In the midst of all this turmoil, Maryam struggled a lot with worry, missing her daughter, feeling helpless, so New Horizons also provided her with psychological support during the whole process.

It took the help of the community, family and friends, as well as lawyers and psychologists from New Horizons who fought to make sure the court decision was implemented, to finally reunite the daughter with her mother. Now after many months of battle, the girl is back with her mother. *name has been changed to protect identity

Published 7 March 2017