Human rights defenders fight against human rights violations individually or collectively with like-minded people, they put issues that are less visible to the public or political decision-makers on the agenda, and try not to ignore the needs and challenges of different social groups or individuals in the process of changes. It’s even broader to understand who an activist is – when you see injustice, the exploitation of the environment, people, resources by those in power for personal purposes, you notice that there are topics that they are trying to manipulate or cover up and you raise your voice against it, you try to raise awareness, you call on others, to pay more attention to the challenges that divide the society, hinder the development of the country, bring changes that bring risks for people, this already means that you are engaged in activist activities even at the micro level.
As citizens, we have a responsibility to respond to all the issues that are gradually “poisoning” our living environment, region, country or, more broadly, the world. Activism has many forms – whether it is voicing one’s opinion on social networks, engaging in small changes in the environment, argumentative communication with people and looking for ways to unite, or conducting a large-scale campaigns with like-minded people or individually. Activists push the public out of their comfort zone and try to open up new spaces for thinking, which may be accompanied by critical backlash, because receiving news is a painful, confusing process. In addition, when we come to opposition to the agenda of those in power, there are frequent attempts to label, silence, intimidate, and stonewall. Activists prevent their personal goals and harmful practices.
In 2021, Sapari and the Human Rights House surveyed the needs of human rights defenders in Georgia. 62% of respondents were women, and 3% were non-binary people. It was found that 57% of the respondents consider the environment as a threat to human rights defenders, and 42% as an average threat. However, the most hostile sentiments come from the ruling party (70%), religious leaders (69%) and state institutions (48%).
The most expected are:
- Online oppression/bullying — 81%;
- Discreating campaigns — 71%;
- Indifference of the police during the criminal behavior against the human rights defender — 67%;
- Disclosure of personal life — 58%;
- Pressure on family members — 45%;
- Physical attack on the street — 43%;
- Office damage — 40%;
- Movement restriction — 35%;
- Hostile neighbors and living environment — 33%;
- Physical violence by the police — 32%.
In addition, 55% of the respondents are at the average level on the professional burnout scale, and 53% have symptoms characteristic of secondary traumatic stress.
Women and non-binary activists face, in addition to common threats, gender discrimination, abuse of gender identity by political officials, or attempts to discredit their activism. At the same time, they are given little space to voice their own position, and in the case of non-binary people, due to the fact that the environment is completely based on binary understanding, are given almost none. The experiences of our respondents also confirm the common challenges, as well as the artificially created barriers and expectations that society has.
Archive of Anano Surmava
Anano Surmava tells us that being in opposition to the prevailing agenda has always been a normal thing for them and they could not do otherwise. They were involved in protests since they were still a student, because they wanted to contribute to the improvement of the environment.
“In 2016, I was arrested due to an anti-homophobic protest. During the same period, I was feeling alienated from my own profession, and when I returned to Kutaisi, I realized that I wanted to help myself and other people to have access to information, services, and a safe space. I never saw this direction as a career, it was an opportunity to do good work.”
They work at a membership-based regional community queer organization, Peripheria, and fights for people’s social well-being, engagement, care, safe space and knowledge sharing. They say that they does not like dividing people into categories and tries to find ways to unite them.
“I try to bring this saying in my conversations with people that we have common problems that cause all the other oppressions. It is important to make it clear that homophobia is a political weapon that aims to divide. We try to create inclusive spaces, talk about common oppressions and look for ways to unite,” Anano tells us.
They share that despite this approach, other people often resort to gender beliefs that are spread in society.
“Our life is defined by gender. I don’t believe that someone’s daily life does not intersect with gender. I identify as a non-binary person, but to society my gender expression is associated with femininity, so they define their beliefs towards me by this. And even in the community, my nonbinariness is less perceived,” says Anano, recalling the cases when, during business meetings with various agencies, they focused on their visual expression. They thought I had to dress officially, and tried to define me as a little whiny kid, who was protesting some things. This attitude, of course, was due to their gender perception and their age. I had to talk to the dean of the law faculty of one of the universities, who directly told me – you are a little girl, don’t you have anyone else I can talk to? When I have to go to the police with the beneficiaries, the misogyny is even more palpable – they try to silence you, they don’t let you finish what you have to say, they talk down to you, they don’t listen to you, they teach you how to behave, they have a dismissive attitude.”
They have been living in Kutaisi for years and are trying to fight for changes at the regional level. They believe that decentralization is the solution, because the centrally made political agenda and the form of mainstream media coverage that leaves only sexual orientation and gender identity of queer people is untenable.
“The voice of queers about health care, labor rights, climate crisis, lack of spaces is not properly heard. We always try to raise these issues with local municipalities, because without that, the empowerment of queer people is unthinkable. If you are visible, but basic challenges remain — you have no job, no decent housing, what’s the point? Pedaling on these basic issues is important”.
They consider the experience of living in a small town and relatively close relationships the reason that cooperation with different structures becomes easier. They say they have positive experiences and feel they are open. For example, they recall the period of the pandemic, when the city council financed housing for a transgender person.
However, they also say that regional activism is also accompanied by challenges, including the constant outflow of young people and the attitude of law enforcement agencies, which complicates the work.
“Young people, who can be active and fight for changes, cannot stop, there is a constant flow and you have to mobilize again. There is no critical mass of young people who will create the agenda and talk about problems. The reason for this is that there are fewer opportunities for employment on the spot,” Anano tells us. Speaking about the police, they note that the relationship with them is a double stress — “there are 3-4 trained ones, but they are mostly ignorant, homophobic, misogynists. I don’t know what you can do to help, it’s hard not to lose hope. You have to explain, prove, you almost have to search for the clues yourself, you bear more responsibility than the criminal. They make you lose the desire to appeal and make you think about looking for alternative ways to solve the situation”.
According to Anano, recently, the direct aggression of the Georgian Dream against queer people and the preparation of the ground for violent attacks, or the encouragement of criminals by the police and the absence of a sense of guilt in court have also led to the abolishment of some level of improvement.
“In 2016, when I came to Kutaisi, change, improvement was felt, there was an opportunity for dialogue, as if the city was much safer, but the recent direct political attacks have changed the situation for the worse. We had 4 cases of violence in Kutaisi,” Anano tells us, questioning the security that the violent experience of 2013 brought to some extent. “Violent experiences seemed to bring improvement, but this is a bad practice, violence should not be a prerequisite for change. It is a fear-based security that has no depth.”
Now it is much more difficult to think of ways out. They say that if the efforts of various organizations can no longer reach political decision-makers, substantial changes will not occur, policies will not be changed, services will not be introduced, and if no one takes care of education and understanding of crime in prisons, changes are hard to imagine.
Fighting for changes requires a lot of time and energy, emotional resources, and it is often difficult to see improvement, because you move forward with small steps. Because of this, it’s hard not to feel hopeless or to push yourself to the point of burnout. The period of the pandemic made Anano realize that the routine had exhausted them.
“Before the pandemic, I was thrown into the fight against oppression as if there was nothing else. Every day there were police stations, newer and newer stories of oppression, and you sort of forget that you can even enjoy the world. You are preoccupied with the thought of survival, you also have a kind of attachment to the tragic, you can also get stuck in the construction of victims, which is very problematic, which my colleagues and I constantly confront. During the pandemic, when we had to stop, we found that we had all burnt out. And then, when we returned to our usual rhythm, we realized that we couldn’t do it anymore”, – Anano shares with us and says that this extreme situation makes work impossible – “Year by year it is the same, and the result is that you changed the lives of several people, for a bit of time. The change is not essential, it is not reflected at the policy level. You are left with this experience only with your voice and your physical body.”
Tireless work is accompanied by a constant concern for financial stability. According to Anano, especially when you have few human resources, you spend a lot of time on writing grants, finding them, so that you can provide services smoothly and have a stable job. In addition, all activities, ideas must be adjusted to a certain pattern, and you do not know exactly what will happen tomorrow, your work can be thrown away, and stress increases even more.
“On the one hand, we engage in rights protection activities, but on the other hand, we use all our resources for self-exploitation and labor. This is also a tendency that you should always work tirelessly, the value of rest is devalued, it is equated with laziness. However, the importance of rest is very great – we need quality rest to be more productive.”
Friends and observation of those queer collectives, people who don’t stop, fight, help each other help Anano to deal with stress and overcome frustration. In the future, they see themselves beyond activism, including looking for new forms of expressing their queerness.
“Activism made me forget my own dreams, desires, who I am and what I want to do, even if I want to express my queerness in another profession, transfer it. Maybe the forms of resistance need to be changed. Personally, as an activist, now is the period when I think about new things”.
Sofo Afriamashvili / Netgazeti
“I am a person with disabilities and from the beginning I faced challenges, obstacles and I always had the motivation to change a very bad situation. Now the situation is better, although we are moving forward slowly, but earlier the number of people who talked about the challenges and took action was very small,” says Ana Sikhashvili, an activist who fights for the welfare of disabled people.
Going to the US and observing the level of independence and freedom of disabled people further strengthened her spark of fighting for changes. Observing her own experience, she believes that “if you haven’t seen what’s better, you have less desire to fight for the improvement of your country”.
“First you take care of strengthening yourself, then you try not only to protect yourself, but also to extend the mechanism to others. During the pandemic, I decided to volunteer with one of the organizations to conduct a 3-month training course on the needs of disabled people and to share information with non-disabled people as well”, says Anna, noting that that period made her realize how important it is to raise public awareness and how necessary For disabled people to have more information about each other — “For example, even disabled men do not know what challenges disabled women face. That course also taught me a lot.”
Anna explains that trying to change the environment for the better starts with the smallest steps. For example, the Law of Georgia on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities stipulates that infrastructure projects must be created according to the principle of universal design. She asked the relevant agencies to fulfill this reservation.
“When I noticed that there was a problem in this part and the new infrastructure projects did not take into account the universal design, I started writing letters, appealing to the responsible persons. All this happened by itself, I stepped in, so to speak. And now, I already feel a responsibility to myself and to people who hope that there are people who will not leave me alone in the face of challenges. I have learned to study the environment so much that I observe every step, I do not stop trying”.
According to Anna, when you are active and fight for changes, many people try to tell you, blame you for a thousand things or label you, but you should focus on the goal and not pay attention to their opinions and misconceptions.
“I have had cases when they wrote on social networks – “You are a lovely girl” and gave me advice. In this way, with a positive attitude, they tried to tell me that I should keep quiet, that in their opinion, I should stop being “crazy”, – Anna tells us.
She notes that she faces additional stereotypes in relation to disabled people – it is considered that they live a less active life and have less demands.
“For example, sound traffic lights were installed on Chavchavadze, this too as a result of our protest. I had to return home late at night and found that the sound signal is not working, I basically can’t cross the road. Then I also heard that people are worried, call and turn off the sound signal after 9. When I protested this, one of the people told me – “Yes, but what do you even do outside after 9?”
So, according to them, I am a woman, I am a disabled person and I do nothing outside after 9 at night. I directly told them that it’s none of their business, even if I’m out until the morning, the traffic light should be on, I shouldn’t have any problems moving. There have been many such cases, but this is the most visible example”.
As Anna observes, when you are a woman and have disabilities, you have to deal with both positive and negative discrimination at the same time.
“My case also shows this – firstly, you are a woman, so, why are you out at night? And secondly, you are disabled, so what if someone harms you at night? Why wouldn’t a person who uses one type of vulnerability to oppress use an additional vulnerability?! The same thing happens in many families, women are not defined by gender to cook in the kitchen, and in the case of women with disabilities, they believe that they can’t do it either – thus, women with disabilities remain dysfunctional in traditional families.”
She tells us that men with disabilities get angry when she openly states that they are privileged over women with disabilities, but community meetings confirm the same:
“When meetings are held, they always try to silence the issues of women with disabilities, to not make their voice heard, to rule, to dominate. But when you gather experience, you easily understand when they try to control you, influence you”.
She is goal-oriented and tries not to pay attention to artificially created barriers, including the stereotypical expectation of official agencies that she is a woman and should be calm – “I am not subject to this expectation, I try to voice my opinion, make demands, and they can’t make me look down anymore”.
While women disabled activists face many challenges, having a support system is even more important. However, according to Anna, women’s rights defenders often consider her as a separate.
“They cannot perceive us as part of their struggle. The support and solidarity of those groups with whom we share vulnerability is essential. They are less interested. We are talking, but why not, let it become a more widely discussed issue, we, disabled people, also vote on other social challenges, why is it that we are not proactive and only vote when there are some harmful consequences? I have had cases when in the process of advocating women’s issues, I have mentioned the needs of women with disabilities, and many people could not connect them, did not understand why we should be included as a separate direction”.
She tries to see the results of the struggle even in small details, to appreciate the steps taken forward. She considers it an achievement to interest even those people who had not thought about the challenges of disabled people before. Still, the routine effort to make even a small improvement is exhausting.
“Constantly talking about the same thing, constantly proving things to the same person affects motivation. I’m not just an activist – I’m a student, I’m involved in various projects, and I want to relax. All this affects even sleep. I often laugh, if someone thinks about their crush, my thoughts are, if I wrote to someone in the city hall, and will they answer me tomorrow or not. It has often happened that I didn’t sleep, I was so engrossed in these routine details and I was so tense,” Anna tells us and says that activism has become her main priority, and she manages other things sometimes at the expense of not sleeping at night. “Maybe I do other things well, but end up I hurting myself.”
There was a time when music helped her to relax and forget her worries, but then she realized that it was no longer enough and a more effective solution is to consult a psychologist.
“But I still can’t stop thinking that here I am trying something, but conditionally, I decided to go to study in another country for some time, during the period for which I fought, for what I prayed for, what I asked for, may not last anymore. I will explain simply – with the tireless efforts of our colleagues, we installed a sound traffic light on the Queen Ketevan Avenue, but soon the works were completed on Zhvania Square, where nothing was installed. You need to follow it, you have to go everywhere and check. Therefore, I have a feeling that if I am not so actively involved in this process, the work will be thrown away, because they do not have the will to follow the principle of universal design”.
Self-empowerment plays a crucial role in starting the struggle for change, but as Anna tells us, when a person is faced with the problem of moving through physical space, motivation alone may not be enough.
“For example, in the case of the blind, there is a service of a walker, which can be used three times a month, which is useless for an activist; If you are a wheelchair user, there are other barriers. However, involvement is very important — going out on the street with a white cane every day already means that you are raising people’s awareness. You may hear unpleasant comments at first, but gradually attitudes change. We all have our share of responsibility, and one phrase can do a big job, a small initiative can produce results,” Anna explains, noting that the participation of women with disabilities in politics would also be effective—it would at least be a motivator for people who are at home and think, “it does not matter.”
For many years, Samira Bayramova has been fighting for the integration of Georgian ethnic minorities, for equal rights, against existing stereotypes towards women, and always expresses her position openly.
“The struggle for the rights of ethnic minorities is also a struggle for Georgia – if we are building a democratic society, when one side develops and the other remains in the same place, it damages the common interest. Many times I have felt that because of my ethnicity or religious beliefs, they think that I have no right to speak about issues that are critically important to the country. As if I am not Georgian enough to have the right to fight for the interests of Georgia. I am a citizen of this country, so it doesn’t matter what they think, I have to contribute to the construction of the state – we are not yet tolerant, democratic, equal, so I will do everything I can.”
She actively talks about the devastating consequences of child marriage, the needs of ethnic minority women, and says that talking about these issues is not acceptable in the community either.
“If I obey such attitudes, the challenges of ethnic minorities may remain invisible, and the majority will attribute certain problems to minorities and avoid their own responsibility.”
Political officials try to use women as a political tool, says Samira, recalling the case of 2022, when they were confronted by City Hall employees while distributing EU flyers in the Marneuli market.
“I get angry when I see that high political officials use people for their personal interests as political tools, whose health and quality of life they do not care about.”
[At the incident in Marneuli market, aggressive women accused Samira of insulting the Christian cross. In March of the same year, Samira Bairamova painted the office and logo of the pro-Russian, violent group Alt-Info in the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
Pro-Russian groups launched a campaign against Samira and spread threatening messages against her, accusing her of insulting the cross. Alt-Info’s logo has 5 cross-shaped images. The prosecutor’s office recognized Samira as a victim and included her in the protection program. She decided to move from the region to Tbilisi for safety, but the attacks still continue — recently, Samira Bayramova published photos and wrote that a symbol of Europe and women’s power on the door of her apartment was painted over and a cross was placed on it. And the wall on which the logo with the inscription “Remember the August War” was painted was painted in the colors of the Russian flag.]
Samira says that an important challenge in the direction of civil activism is the lack of human resources, and events are developing so quickly that we cannot react and the struggle is inconsistent.
“Our problem is that we deceive ourselves, as if we do a lot, but the question is how well we do it. We have a human resource problem and there are so many things happening that we can’t achieve anything, we are involved in inhumane work, we don’t have time for personal development, we have responsibilities”.
According to Samira, the situation is further complicated by the split between the ruling party and the civil sector. She also points out that she is ready to dialogue with any type of person, if this process is not accompanied by violence and discrimination, it is directed towards help, support, and improvement.
“We and the ruling party cannot talk to each other, we cannot recognize each other’s existence. Moreover, politicians are trying to slander the civil sector in different ways. A clear example of this was the Russian law, an attempt of a clear defamation. They don’t want people to talk about challenges, problems, they care about their personal well-being, they don’t want to lose their positions. They want to keep their power permanently and cannot accept that it is temporary”.
She says that the increasingly narrowing of the space in the path of struggle for change is accompanied by attempts to suppress the voice of women activists, despite the fact that we see examples of tireless struggle.
“Us, women activists are active, we are visible, we stand at the forefront of a number of important issues. We have to fight because our rights are grossly violated and this fight is important for our survival, for the women living around us, for the protection of the principle of equality in society. In addition, the burden of the family is often on our shoulders, for example, raising children. But in spite of everything, the courage, struggle, arguments, and activism of women are degraded by the society only because we are women”.
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Even though she had to give up a lot for his activism and threats, persecution affected both her and her family, she says that getting out of his comfort zone is necessary for change and she was ready for anything.
“If you start doing activism, it means that you are leaving your comfort zone, you will face many obstacles. To explain with a simple example, when we have cases of early marriage, they don’t say it because they are afraid of clashing with the community, but it results in harm to the girls. Therefore, it is unjustified to turn a blind eye to the struggles of others because of connections, to maintain personal comfort,” Samira tells us, adding, “As a person grows and becomes stronger, you grow with experience in activism, you become stronger, as if the body is directed to overcome resistance. Strength, stubbornness, principledness have brought me to this point”.
Samira considers a strong local self-government as a prerequisite for development and tells us that leaving the center and taking care of strengthening the community at the local level is the most important thing. However, she notes that the development at the local level is hindered by such basic barriers as the lack of water, roads, transport, health services, or virtually non-existent spaces for socialization.
According to Samira, the activism of people with different experiences is crucial, because it means paying attention to a number of needs.
“For example, if there is no water at home, women worry about it, men – less. Women can have much more to say because they know the depth of this problem, so women’s activism is essential. Moreover, one-sided development is impossible – what comes out, men’s perspective is heard and they assert their rights, but on the other side, we have much slower progress”.
For beginner activists, it is most important to receive education, to accumulate knowledge in order to be able to talk, answer, and voice arguments with a person with an opposite opinion.
“You should know what you are fighting for and have an answer. And again, you should not be afraid of making mistakes. This is how they raise us, punish us for mistakes, instill fear in us, accustom us to obedience. However, mistakes help you to develop, this is not a necessary prerequisite, but you cannot determine in advance and it is necessary to be ready so that mistakes do not scare you. If we don’t raise our voice, no one will help us, we have to be aimed to get help ourselves”.
Archive of Eto Arsanidze
“In the beginning, I was talking about, what was happening at my locality – at every election, they promised us gas, water, roads, which they did not fulfill, and I protested on social networks, in conversations… I protested, but I did not know that this was called activism. It was a response to wrong events, a statement of a position, shouts of activism”.
She recalls that for the first time she was mentioned as a civil activist in 2019, when it was necessary to urgently call an ambulance for a 16-year-old boy in Ambrolauri, which was not found in the municipality. Because of this, the patient’s life was in danger, and he passed away about a month after this.
Eto distributed a petition with Ambulance for Racha. Since then, Eto has been actively involved in activism, she also founded the Racha community organization.
She says that protesting on a number of issues has often led to stereotypical, discriminatory assessments, when they tried to downplay her activism with sexist comments.
“For example, “you are a woman and you are protesting because you are not getting married, “, “Look in the mirror” – talking about your looks to silence you, calls to “get married” and have children; “how is it your business what’s going to happen to the forest, you’re a woman” and similar comments were made very often, especially on social networks, Eto tells us, noting that in addition to that, she also experienced cases of harassment, at which point she decided to defend herself legally. In both cases, the fact of discrimination was established and the offenders were ordered to pay a fine administratively.
“The first post published on the social network was followed by a confrontation in the physical space. He came to the office, he wanted to beat me, then he wrote some things on my car, addressed me with rude words, and at the same time used insulting language towards me and my friends on the social network. The second one was from someone I know well on social media.”
According to Eto, despite the fact that choosing a legal path is related to stress and the interview can last for hours, it changes people’s behavior and it is important not to leave the facts of harassment and discrimination unattended.
“This is prevention. The person who wronged feels uncomfortable. However, it is a fact that it is punishable and others also win. People’s perception changes with such small steps – just as we know that a person will be punished for a serious crime, the awareness that this is a crime should also be increased. I think, then other people will hold back from it”.
As Eto points out, “The challenge is that they constantly try, and not only in the case of activists, to stick labels on you, but as if it doesn’t bother me anymore, I’ve already passed it. One side is telling me I belong to the other, and the other one is doing the same, but I can’t do anything.”
As we are told, the aggression of a part of the locals is added to the fact that self-governments try to ignore critical citizens in their relations with the civil society, which complicates the struggle for changes in the municipality.
“I was at one such meeting, it was two days, and on the first day I was warned not to be late tomorrow. I left and soon they called me to tell me that my organization was no longer on the list for tomorrow’s meeting. I realized that the municipality had ordered me not to come again, because non-governmental organizations were not to attend the next day, and later I saw that representatives of non-governmental organizations were in the photos. Critical people were disregarded. Even now, when meetings with non-governmental organizations are held, they never send me an invitation. Then I write, but what’s the point, there is no response”
At the local level, women’s rights agencies exist only formally, says Eto.
“There are mostly men, or there are women in the department, but they have neither the appropriate competence, nor the knowledge, they have not had contact with women’s issues at all. They are still following the Soviet model and handing out gift packages – no trainings, no workshops, no care for the empowerment of women”, says Eto, noting that they also do not attend trainings conducted by non-governmental organizations, which would help to improve their competence.
People employed in public agencies are more trusted, whether they work in schools or city hall at the local level, they are recipients of social assistance, and their support leans towards political officials.
“It may seem easy to react to something from the center, because the connections in Tbilisi are not so strong. Here, everyone knows everyone, has a close relationship, is a classmate, a relative, there are close ties between the government and the people. In the region, you need much more effort, and if someone is in a public agency and has a large circle of acquaintances, they are more trusted, and my voice as a civil activist may not be heard. I may have arguments, the facts may be on my side, but I am a woman, I do not have power, and they lean towards the other side”.
She also points out that the circle of like-minded people in Tbilisi is much larger, mobilization happens soon, and there is a much smaller support system in the region.
Eto also talks about financial challenges, because civil activism is mainly based on volunteerism, it is not paid. She says, often even when involved in various projects, they fail to analyze the fact that a person living in the region may have additional needs even during transportation.
“Add to that my energy and time that I spend or financial resources that I have to put in to be able to attend. Why should I have a problem with that part? I think it is important to respect my efforts, time, and energy.”
According to Eto, activism is exhausting work that does not leave you time for yourself, so it would be good if the access to free psychologist service for activists/rights defenders started to be taken care of.
“A person should also learn to not cross the line, not to be completely absorbed by activism. I, for example, dived in, and didn’t take care of self-protection. It is difficult to be in activism for years without support, so it is very important to support activists in this direction”, says Eto, and shares that recently she has had so many hard news, which was added to the hardest days of the Shovi tragedy, that she reached a state of burnout – “I am not so active anymore. I get small supports, that’s what restores motivation. However, I think that time may pass and it may not be enough, the motivation may disappear. I expect that too. A year ago I wouldn’t have said that, but so many things have happened in the last year that I am in a radical state.”
She believes that it is important to voice the voices of young people and to return to the region those people who leave the municipality for education. She advises them that – if people were critical towards them before, they will gain enemies, if not – they will try to gain good will, they will do everything not to leave them in a neutral position.