Women from the South Caucasus

Article, 08.03.2019

Today the whole world celebrates the Women's International Day. Everyone - media outlets, organisations, countries, groups or individuals - trumpet in unison the global role of women - caretakers, farmers, educators, scientists, entrepreneurs, so on. Traditionally, we present the stories of amazing women from the South Caucasus Region who made their own contribution to development. 

portrait of Makvala Surmanidze
Makvala Surmanidze works hard to preserve the ancient tradition of jara beekeeping ©SDC

Mayvala Surmanidze, Fushrukauli village, Georgia

Mayvala Surmanidze, 52, is one of 135 residents of the Phushrukauli village and the only woman who ardently tries to revamp an ancient Georgian tradition of beekeeping. Jara is a very rare type of beekeeping that can be found today in a remote mountainous region of Ajara (West Georgia). It is a hive made from hollowed-out logs placed high in remote places and in trees to protect from bears.

Wild bees have always been present in Makvala’s life. As a child, she was giving a hand to her father in running a family business of one hundred and twenty Jara hives. For the past thirty years, after her husband passed away, honey from wild bees helped her and her four children make both ends meet.

“Our village is known for Jara beekeeping. There was a time when almost every family would have Jara hives. It was very prestigious and highly priced. Buying a bee family was quite expensive at the time: one family would be traded for a goat, and a lamb,” remembers Makvala.

jaras lined up in the garden
Jara is an ancient type of beekeeping in Georgia ©SDC

It was never a flying start for Makvala. With four infants to feed, she was afraid to deal with wild bees on her own. With Makvala’s diligence and hard work over many years, children have elaborated special love for wild bees and Jara tradition. Today, with the help of her children – boys help her collect swarm and girls get involved during harvesting – Makvala yields about 100-120 kg of honey a year. Her clients are neighbours or Turkish traders who prefer Jara’s 100% pure and wild honey.

I feel connected with my roots when I watch bees working. Jara has always been our traditional family business and I do not want to let it go, even though it is hard for me to keep up. Beekeeping is regarded here as a male-dominated industry and I have a lot to learn to master it – says Makvala.

The tradition is preserved and rejuvenated in the Surmanidze’s family. Makvala has already applied for the bio certification, which will add value to her Jara honey.

Ruzanna Torozyan, Armenia

Ruzanna Torozyan, Head of Goris Women's Development "Resource Center" Foundation
Ruzanna Torozyan, Head of Goris Women's Development "Resource Center" Foundation © SCO South Caucasus

“Back in the early 2000s, sitting in a room full of men, I felt the urge to address the critical social needs of my community and take action,” says Ruzanna Torozyan, the President of WINNET Armenia Association of Women Resource Centers. At 34 years old, Ruzanna was working at the municipality of her hometown Goris, located in Syunik province, Armenia. Willing to bring change and direct the administration’s attention to overlooked issues, Ruzanna decided to run for the city council elections. From that point on, she never settled. 

“The fact that the whole city council consisted of only men seemed strange to me. While they chose to focus on issues mainly related to construction and infrastructure maintenance, women’s and children’s needs were simply unnoticed by the local administration,” recalls Ruzanna. Including female members in the working group, when the idea of women being involved in politics was considered irrelevant, has been challenging according to her. “Breaking the stereotypes I became the first female member of the city council, ready to make a difference,” she says. 

Currently, Ruzanna Torozyan is the Executive Director of Women’s Development “Resource Center” Foundation, active in provinces Tavush, Syunik and Lori. Together with her peers Ruzanna has established six resource centers in six different cities of these provinces, aiming to enhance the role of local vulnerable women in political, economic, and social life. 

The resource centers themselves are quite unique models. Each center focuses on the needs and opportunities of its respective communities. Ruzanna brings the example of their most successful center established in the city of Goris and the workshop attached to it in the neighboring village Shinuhayr: “About 80 women, 45 of which are full time workers, design and manufacture organic wool products inspired by local patterns,” proudly states Ruzanna. Read how Switzarland contributed to the establishment of the workshop here

The Foundation also encourages active participation of women in local issues. “Some of the women attending our resource center, are highly interested in politics,” Ruzanna says. “We encourage those women to be politically active by developing their capacities, educating themselves on particular topics, helping them in designing their campaigns, handling PR, and so on.” In 2012, at the local council elections, four resource centers have supported 36 women, 28 of whom have been elected as councilors․ 

Zumrud Calilova, Azerbaijan

Zumrud Calilova, together with her friends, established a feminist group, called Equals in Baku in 2016 to spark more discussion on gender equality between both men and women in Azerbaijan. Although this organization was intended to serve as a discussion platform both online and in real life, it has already implemented a gender-related project with the Swiss Cooperation Office. The project was about producing a children’s book entitled “Brave girls” to encourage young girls to pursue their wishes in the future.

Zumrud says: “I was constantly recommended to look for a fiancée and settle down since I was 20.  My parents, particularly my mom, have always supported my education and financial independence, although my dad kept telling me to prioritize family over studies or career all this time. During my studies, I felt frustrated by the feeling that women were so invisible, oppressed and unrecognized in political life. All the challenges that I faced during my studies, internships, volunteer work and job in Azerbaijan made me think, “Why is there a presumption that only men are meant for governing and women for caring? Why is there a gender division? And why is there such a high level of gender-based violence in my country?” I became fanatically interested in why girls are treated as future wives and mothers, not as individuals who have their own dreams, views and opinions.” 

These thoughts changed Zumrud’s life and today, apart from being a gender activist, she teaches Gender Studies at the Baku State University in 3 languages to more than 300 students per year. She has conducted more than 20 training sessions on gender in/equality at various NGOs and youth organizations. She worked as a Gender Project Manager at the very renowned Women's Association for Rational Development. 

“Women in Azerbaijan continue to be under-represented as political leaders, elected officials and voters. I think the future development of Azerbaijan highly depends on leadership of women along with men. In addition, I am lobbying for parental leave these days because I strongly believe that the future of gender equality highly depends on equal participation of parents in raising their kids. We also cannot claim to be a great modern country while having high level of domestic violence and sex-selective abortions rate. I see the future development through gender responsive policy making and gender mainstreaming in decision making with any programme and project,” says Zumrud.