Georgia's new law on domestic violence, still a largely taboo topic in this South Caucasus state, promises to provide long-awaited support for battered women who have traditionally been left to fend for themselves.
The law, passed by parliament on May 25, explicitly defines crimes committed within a family framework as full-fledged crimes, and provides for a system of protective orders that supporters say will give police a sorely-needed tool to deal with domestic violence.
While statistics on domestic violence are sparse in Georgia, police say such incidents are one of their most common calls. In the last five months of 2005, the Tbilisi Patrol Police reported handling 1,466 cases classified as "family conflicts." The Tbilisi Ubnis Inspectorate, a year-old police unit designed for neighborhood policing estimates that such cases account for 80 percent of the unit's work.
Under the new law, police may issue 24-hour restraining orders on the scene of a domestic violence incident. In addition, victims are allowed to appeal to administrative courts for protective orders that can last for up to three months. While both orders prohibit the abuser from coming into contact with the victim, they are not criminal sanctions; something that supporters of the law say is an important nuance.
Worried that pressing charges will bring shame to their family, many women have lived with abuse for years on end by keeping it hidden and accepting it as a fact of life. Mia (not her real name), a 35-year-old Tbilisi mother of two, endured beatings for 18 years until finally filing for divorce; even when the assaults occurred in public, she said, police did not intervene once they learned the attacker was her husband. With a lack of clear legal mandates and a cultural reticence to interfere in what is considered a private matter, Georgian police traditionally have rarely made arrests for what they label "family conflicts."
Similarly, tracking the number of women who have decided to press charges can prove a daunting task. As part of a recent review of cases by a coalition of non-governmental organizations, the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA) found that neither prosecutors nor Tbilisi city courts record the number of domestic violence cases. The Supreme Court reported only 11 cases throughout the country in 2005.
"Unfortunately most victims prefer to endure it on their own rather than taking it to court or pressing charges," noted Giorgi Gegichkori, head of the Tbilisi Ubnis Inspectorate.
One supporter of the law says that the legislation was drafted keeping in mind the importance of providing a prompt response without requiring the victim to criminalize the case. "It is good that it is not necessary to arrest the abuser because the victim always hesitates," said Irina Lortkipanidze, a senior staff attorney at the American Bar Association's Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative, a non-profit organization that helped develop the draft law. "Instead the protective and restrictive orders still give a defense to the victim. It does not limit the victim to criminalizing the case."
However, not all elements of the law are yet ready for full implementation. While the legislation provides for social workers to monitor instances of abuse, no government agency has social workers trained in handling domestic violence cases.
Finding funds to finance all aspects of the legislation has proven "the largest problem," according to Keti Makharashvili, a member of parliament for the ruling National Movement-Democrats and the bill's sponsor. The law, for instance, calls on the government to fund a temporary shelter for victims, but funding for this provision has been delayed until 2008. Currently, the country has just one domestic violence shelter, operated by the Anti-Violence Network of Georgia, a non-profit organization. [The AVNG receives funding from the Open Society Foundation of Georgia, part of the Soros Foundations network. EurasiaNet also operates under the network's auspices.]
Nonetheless, police officers like Levan Kopaliani, a regional supervisor for one Tbilisi neighborhood, say the law will be a "welcome" resource for officers.
But a final cultural variable so far unknown is how individuals in abusive households will respond to the legislation. Says Eliso Amirejibi at AVNG: "If you do not understand that you are a victim you aren't going to apply for a protective order."
Warren Hedges previously worked as a freelance journalist in Tbilisi.