I am gob-smacked.
Did I hear that right? Did the patriarch of Georgia just tell the nation that the priority of Georgians is to re-populate, that abortion should be banned, and that children who were a financial drain on their parents could be given to the church?
Did he just address a nation whose economic prosperity (or lack of) has led people to protest on the streets because their children are dying of starvation? (1)
‘Georgia has 19.1 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age. It has one of the highest rates of abortion in Europe. The average woman in Georgia will have an average of three abortions in her life time.’(2)
I was listening to Tripod, (3) a weekly broadcast from Tbilisi that looks at the big issues and offers opinion and discussion about what is going on. I had to hit the ‘replay’ button a couple of times to get my head around the implication of the patriarch’s words. (2)
‘This (abortion) happens because of the desire and decision of the parents. It is a horrible murder of an innocent, helpless creature. And the doctor is an accessory to this murder. When the country is in such a difficult demographic situation, I think the government must pass a law banning abortions, with just a small number of exceptions of course’
Exceptions!!!!! What does he mean by that? Does he mean that if a child is a girl? Or disabled? Or God forbid… GAY??? Or the result of a rape??? Or what??? Come ON!!
Selective gender infanticide is reported to be at an all-time high in Georgia. (4) And that phrase the ‘traditional value’ or cultural norm that gets bandied about (most often, it seems, by men) to legitimise stereotyping of, and discrimination against women or LGBT people is becoming more and more transparent, and holds less and less substance.
Let’s repeat what is being said on the streets of Georgia all the time; ‘A boy is OK, a girl is not’.
And what if a high proportion of these extra children are girls? Or disabled? Or homosexual or transgender? Will the church take them then? The situations in Georgia’s orphanages are already, in the majority of institutions, dire. There are a few exceptions and most of those are as a result of intervention by UNICEF or other philanthropic organisations. The social stigma of having a child outside wedlock, or with a 'disability', creates such shame that families break up, and children are abandoned either to an orphanage or left to beg in the streets. (5)
Contrary to popular belief, the majority of children begging on the streets of Tbilisi are, in fact, ethnic Georgians and not immigrants. Children are hidden away for years in family homes and orphanages are filled with unwanted children who are often beaten and abused.
Children with and without physical disability suffer:
‘Physical violence, including corporal punishment, incarceration – including being locked in one’s home or not allowed out. Over-or misuse of medication, medical experimentation or involvement in invasive research without consent. Sexual abuse and exploitation, including rape, sexual aggression, indecent assault, indecent exposure, forced involvement in pornography and prostitution. Psychological threats and harm, usually consisting of verbal abuse, harassment, humiliation or threats of punishment or abandonment, emotional blackmail, arbitrariness, denial of adult status and infantilising disabled persons. Interventions which violate the integrity of the person, including certain educational, therapeutic and behavioural programmes. Financial abuse, including fraud and theft of personal belongings, money or property. Neglect, abandonment and deprivation, neglect of health care needs or other daily necessities’ (6)
Horrific isn’t it?
This report goes on to name the orphanages that ill-treat their children. If the child is abandoned, God help them. If they are abandoned and disabled, then I am not sure that being in a church orphanage will make much of a difference.
I tried really hard to find Orthodox orphanages on the internet. No luck. There were state run ones, (7)some of which were improving, but still in need of an immense amount of work. There were lots of Methodist, Evangelical, and Salvation Army ones, heaps run by UNICEF, or Amnesty International, a Waldorf (Steiner) one and an astonishingly amazing one run by the Catholic church, (8) but nope, not one run by the orthodox church.
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I am sure that the majority of Georgian society who, overall, loves and cherishes its children and are overtly affectionate towards them, would be equally horrified, especially as part of the Georgian literary culture that has built an ideology of what children’s lives could, should, and ought to be like is laid out in the writings of Nodar Dumbadze.
Of COURSE it is not only Georgia where children are abused and neglected (9) and OF COURSE there are cases of neglect here in the UK that are equally horrendous. Whilst it is worth knowing that the UK has one of the highest incidences of child poverty in the developed world it is also worth remembering that we are not encouraging people to have more children. We are also not taking away the right of the woman to have less children, or none at all!
The idea of a Children’s town as outlined by Nodar Dumbadze, who was one of Georgia’s most famous writers, encompasses a vision of a society where all children are included, and play without borders or burdens, and is one which all citizens of the world might like to aspire to.
It would seem impossible to create a place in the sun for children living in such a dark and poverty-stricken reality however there are some innovative, creative and educational things going on. Things are improving, and some Georgian people and Georgian business are providing a reminder, a vision of what Dumbadze wanted and dreamed for every child and whilst some work is continuing to combat the abuse and neglect in orphanages there is also a place I think for public celebration of a vision, a dream.
The Sun Festival takes place each year on June 1st in Mzirui Park in Tbilisi and is the brainchild of Anna Goguadze, a 26-year-old TV presenter, photographer, artist, writer and mad fan of The Beatles, Nodar Dumbadze, and dreamer of dreams. Anna is also disabled and uses a wheelchair. Anna is unique because she puts herself on TV in front of a nation of people whose smiles often belie their real thoughts about orphans, street children and those with disabilities. (10)
Anna’s vision of a Sun Festival is to create a positive, fun-filled festival experience for all children in an environment where a wheelchair does not prevent a connection with another human being, where a disability does not define, but where a child is celebrated for who they are, for their own light, for their own sunshine. Anna’s dream is for every child to be integrated into society, and to know they are loved and accepted no matter what.
Anna would deny she is a feminist – she defines herself as more of a humanist – and yet she initiated an interview on her TV show with The Women’s Fund to discuss the issues faced by Georgian women today. Anna also secured funding from GEOCELL for the third year in a row for her celebration in the sun. (11)
Anna is certainly breaking boundaries and celebrating childhood and is inspiring others to do the same. No matter that Anna is on TV, I am glad she is. She is using it as a platform for reform, for change, for celebration and for spreading awareness. And she appears to be succeeding. She is doing practical, inspirational and well-intentioned things, which remind the Georgian people of that special place in the sun for all their children. Not just the ones they can afford, or the ones that are not disabled, or, oh dear, the girls.
I admire women like Anna. Here is a woman who is slowly swimming against the tide of the patriarchal nonsense that tries to not only oppress her and others like her, but also their visions and their dreams. In Georgia right now there are women who see past disability, poverty, and oppression. When these women come into a room, they bring the sun with them.
The patriarch ought to be listening to them.
Are the orphanages improving? I hope so. God I hope so. From my own research I believe so, even though there is a hell of a long way to go. If the patriarch has his way, there are going to be a whole lot more of them so I have to believe so.
We all have our part to play.
Sarah Cobham 14 May 2013
(6) Info-georgia.ru/index/international standards on ill/0-75
‘The (2002 UNICEF) reports reveal that the overriding reason why families surrender their children with disabilities to institutions is a lack of care-giving capacity. This can be a result of social values and individual beliefs, knowledge and training or a gap in material and economic support.’
(9)www.nspcc.org Statistics showing child neglect in the UK
(10) www.youtube.com/watch?v+vuEMMAEd71I&feature=share Video showing challenges faced by disabled people in Tbilisi today