Women in the North Caucasus conflicts: An under-reported plight
Women in the Russian republic of Chechnya have never been under such pressure as they are today. Yet not much has been written about their role, their place in society, and their rights in Chechnya and in other North Caucasus conflicts.
For more than two decades since 1994, the armed conflict between Russian federal forces and the insurgencies of the North Caucasus has been among Europe’s deadliest, churned by a vicious circle of unresolved religious and ethnic tensions, brutal counter-insurgency, lack of democratic procedures, social inequality, and bad governance. Instability and war resulted in a dramatic erosion of state capacity, weakened state institutions and the increased prominence of traditional and religious practices and intolerant ideologies.
All of this has shapedwomen’s experiences and roles – as victims, providers of security and perpetrators of violence – not just in Chechnya but also in the neighbouring republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan.
Women’s rights violations
Women and girls in Chechnyaare subject to honour killings, domestic violence, abductions for marriage and early marriages. In some Dagestani villages,they also suffer genital mutilation. In Chechnya and Ingushetia many are deprived of their children after divorce –with reference to purported “tradition” which allegedly prescribes children to be raised in their father’s family–and are often denied visiting rights. Some have been struggling to see their children for years. In Chechnya, sexual violenceby close relatives, is hardly ever prosecuted; if such a crime becomes public knowledge, the victim may be killed to “purge the family shame”’.
Maternity wards in the region are below acceptable standards, resulting in preventable maternal deaths and injuries. Corruption is also omnipresent in the health system: without a bribe a pregnant woman can hardly get adequate help. Even a bribe cannot guarantee quality care: women often encounter incompetent and negligent doctors. Infant mortality in the eastern North Caucasus is almost twice that of the developed regions of Russia.
In one hospital in Ingushetia, several cases of alleged criminal negligence, including instances in which women lost their babies and reproductive organs and one woman died, have been reported, most recently in September 2015. Investigations have so far led nowhere. In Dagestan, three women reportedly died in a hospital in the town of Kizilyurt in the last couple of months, relatives claim as a result of criminal negligence. Earlier this year, the death of a woman in the maternity ward of Dagestan’s Khasavyurt brought hundreds of protesters into the streets and ended up in stone throwing and disturbances.
Most of these crimes are punishable under Russian law. Yet, Russia is not able or is reluctant to enforce some aspects of its laws when it comes to gender-based violations, in some of its North Caucasus republics where women’s problems continue to be under-researched, under-reported, and insufficiently addressed by both central and local authorities.
Trapped in a legal triangle
Russian law is rather progressive in respect of the women’s rights, even though the Committee to End Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) recommends that Russia adopt more comprehensive legislation to prevent and address violence against women, and notes the absence of an effective complaints mechanism for women to claim their rights. However, for a woman in Chechnya, Ingushetia or Dagestan the situation is further complicated by the fact that Russian law is just one of the three co-existing legal systems that regulate her position: customary law, Islamic sharia law and/or Russian law. All these systems are open to arbitrary interpretations, which can lead to serious infringement of rights.
The formal Russian legal system suffers from corruption and enforcement problems. Even when Russian courts pass decisions in favour of women, the local authorities, especially in Chechnya, openly sabotage their implementation. They have, for example, ignored court orders in favour of women in custody disputes, citing “tradition”. In one case taken to the European Court for Human Rights, the Russian state itself cited “tradition” as an obstacle to enforcing custody decisions. Some mothers have been unlawfully separated from their children for years.
Victims rarely dare to seek redress, and when they do, regional law-enforcement agencies often do not react or openly obstruct. In Chechnya the state protection that victims do get sometimes involves officials who collude with suspected perpetrators. Sergey Bobrov, a federal official, the head of Chechnya’s investigative committee, tried to investigate honour killings which implicated local security officials, but received threats and was six months later dismissed from his position by President Putin. Moscow does not pay sufficient attention to investigating crimes against women, being either unaware of the problem or finding it unimportant. “They have lived this way for ages, there’s nothing we can do”, a high level federal human rights official told me.
The temporarily liberating impact of war
Today Chechen women areparticularly vulnerable and at risk.
Women carried a special burden on their shoulders during the republic’s two wars. Men fought on both sides, and for those who didn’t, it was dangerous to move through the republic’s numerous checkpoints. They could be arrested, abducted, tortured or killed. Women became the main breadwinners, took care of children, cleared away debris andrepaired damaged houses. They negotiated with the military, and when men were abducted by security services they blocked roads, protested, spent days in official institutions trying to establish their whereabouts, and searched through mass graves. Some eventually started to document crimes and became outspoken human rights defenders.
Paradoxically the extreme conditions of war were liberating for women. The pressure of tradition was forced aside as wartime conditions and the absence of men created an opening for women to take up leading roles in society.
Many Chechen women remain family breadwinners and still have to do all the housework, but since the war their social status has dramatically changed for the worse. After full-blown military confrontation ended and federal troops established control over the whole of Chechnya in 2003, the Kremlin launched a policy of “Chechenisation”, whereby most political, military and administrative functions were transferred to ethnic Chechens. The Kremlin put in power the formerly separatist Kadyrov family, to whom it outsourced law-enforcement and governance in the republic.
Chechnya’s 38-year-old dictator Ramzan Kadyrov declared that his regime was going to restore traditional values and mores, and today exerts immense pressure on women.He has described women as a husband’s property, whose main role is to bear children. In 2007, he introduced a strict dress code (a head scarf, shirts with long sleeves and long skirts) in government institutions, including schools.
He advocates polygamy as the solution when women run foul of traditional law, saying it is “better to be a second or third wife than to be killed”. Though he officially bans under-age marriage and bridal abduction, cases of local security servicemen forcing very young girls into marriages, and as second or de facto temporary wives have been reported. Women’s activists told me that parents are afraid their daughters be seen in public, especially in the evenings, for fear of them being noticed by people in positions of power. Families cannot resist pressure from powerful security types who may seek to take them for marriage.
Honour killings also appear to have become more common in recent years. There are no distinct state statistics about crimes committed against women in Russia, an omission that international monitoring institutions repeatedly advise state authorities to correct. Perpetrators also go to great lengths to conceal their crimes. Honour killings and domestic violence are also reported in republics beyond Chechnya. Most recently in Dagestan, a father reportedly killed his two daughters for coming home late, while another family chained a woman up for suspected misdemeanour.
Women in the North Caucasus are not only victims of violence or peacemakers, they are also sometimes perpetrators of violence and bearers of radicalism.
Since 2000, Russia has been hit by 82 suicide bombing attacks involving 125 suicide bombers, at least 52 of whom were women. I know of several families in Dagestan whose young women adopted radical strands of Islam and then converted their siblings and even their fathers. One by one their family members joined the insurgency in Russia and were killed, or are now members of the so-called Islamic State (IS). In the last two years many radical women from the North Caucasus have resettled in areas of Syria and Iraq under IS control.
IS presents itself as the most successful jihadist project of the 21st century, enticing young radical women who want to marry mujahidin (holy warriors) with the hope to win a place in “paradise”. As one popular jihadist slogan has it: “It is better to be a widow of a shaheed (martyr) than wife of a coward”. While women’s radicalism shares similar pull and push factors to men’s, there are some specific causes: pressures of the traditional society; lack of opportunities and freedom to make their own life choices or realise their potential; sexual abuse; or traumatic relationships with husbands, brothers or parents. Understanding these is essential to devising effective de-radicalisation strategies.
Since the end of the Soviet Union the status and roles of North Caucasus women have undergone several transformations. Two decades of instability and conflict gave rise to authoritarian regimes, traditionalist policies and ideologies that have resulted in a dramatically deteriorated context for women’s rights, especially in Chechnya, the most affected conflict area. Local activists try to raise awareness and assist victims of abuses, but their voices are weak and the plight of women in the North Caucasus conflicts remains under-reported.
The Russian government should invest in a consistent effort to guarantee equal protection of women not only in Chechnya, but also in Dagestan and Ingushetia. Among other measures, Russian authorities should improve maternal and social services, effectively investigate gender-based violence to combat impunity, and devise effective gendered de-radicalisation strategies. The women of the North Caucasus deserve at least the same level of protection as those in other parts of Russian territory.
Ekaterina Sokirianskaia is Europe and Central Asia Project Director at International Crisis Group, the independent conflict-prevention organisation
*This article was originally published on International Crisis Group’s blog. All images courtesy of Varvara Pakhomenko.