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Women in the North Caucasus Conflicts: An Under-reported Plight
Women in the North Caucasus Conflicts: An Under-reported Plight
Kenya: Averting an Avoidable Crisis
Kenya: Averting an Avoidable Crisis
School in Grozny in 2014. All school girls in Chechnya have to wear a head scarf. CRISIS GROUP/Varvara Pakhomenko

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 shaped women’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 Chechnya are 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 violence by close relatives, is hardly ever prosecuted; if such a crime becomes public knowledge, the victim may be killed to “purge the family shame”’.

Women and girls in Chechnya are subject to honour killings, domestic violence, abductions for marriage and early marriages.

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.

Women working in a bakery in Gimry, Dagestan, in 2013. CRISIS GROUP/Varvara Pakhomenko

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.

Three co-existing legal systems regulate a woman’s position and all three are open to arbitrary interpretations.

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 are particularly 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 and repaired 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.

In the village of Agachaul, Dagestan, women wait for a family house to be blown-up by security services as a punishment for their son being member of the insurgency. Crisis Group/Varvara Pakhomenko

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.

Kadyrov describes women as a husband’s property, whose main role is to bear children.

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 Agachaul, Dagestan, clean up after security forces destroyed the house of an insurgent’s family. CRISIS GROUP/Varvara Pakhomenko

Women’s radicalism

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.

A popular jihadist slogan says: ‘It is better to be a widow of a shaheed (martyr) than wife of a coward’.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta, his wife and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga arrive at the Forces Memorial Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, on 22 January 2016. ​REUTERS/Noor Khamis
Statement / Africa

Kenya: Averting an Avoidable Crisis

Kenya’s ongoing electoral standoff could be compounded further if opposition leader Raila Odinga proceeds with a "swearing-in" ceremony that might elicit a tough response from President Kenyatta. To avert the risk of further protests, destruction and bloodshed, all actors should redouble efforts to broker a last-minute deal.

Kenya’s political crisis could come to a head on Tuesday 30 January 2018. Opposition leader Raila Odinga is expected to stage a swearing-in ceremony as the “people’s president” after two contentious elections in 2017. President Uhuru Kenyatta – who was declared victor of those elections – is reportedly readying a tough response, including the arrest of opposition leaders. This could provoke protests, further police crackdowns and much avoidable destruction and bloodshed, while deepening already dangerous levels of polarisation. Time is running short, but both sides should urgently show restraint: Odinga should call off the ceremony; President Kenyatta should agree to an audit of Kenya’s electoral authorities. Kenyan leaders also should consider some form of national convention to discuss reforms to lower the stakes of political competition.

Last year’s presidential election, held on 8 August, pitted incumbent President Kenyatta against veteran opposition leader Odinga. The electoral commission announced a Kenyatta win, with 54.27 per cent of the vote. Odinga challenged the validity of the vote at the Supreme Court. In a historic decision, the judges annulled the election. Their ruling did not show evidence of mass fraud or question the outcome of the election, but found widespread irregularities and illegalities in the tallying, tabulation and transmission of results. The court ordered a new vote “in strict conformity with the constitution and applicable election laws”. This decision was welcomed by many as a healthy – and, in Africa, unprecedented – sign of judicial independence.  

In its aftermath, however, both Kenyatta and Odinga responded with measures that deepened the crisis and widened societal division. Kenyatta, who would have gained from supporting a rerun that could have given him a clearer mandate, instead lashed out at the judges. His allies in parliament passed legislation curtailing the role of courts in future elections, while state security forces killed dozens of protesting opposition supporters. In turn, Odinga insisted, without offering compelling evidence, that he had won the 8 August election. He issued a raft of conditions – most of which were reasonable but many unrealistic in the period before the repeat ballot – for his participation. Some two weeks before the repeat election, he withdrew, citing inadequate electoral reform. Without the main opposition leader, the 26 October vote became in effect a one-man show: Kenyatta garnered 98 per cent of the vote, but with a turnout of only 39 per cent, down from 77 per cent in the first round.

The oath-taking might in principle satisfy core supporters but in practice would achieve little in terms of advancing their interests.

Since then, the standoff has only worsened. Kenyatta has rejected all efforts by religious leaders, civil society, the business community and diplomats to persuade him to engage his rival. Odinga continues to demand fresh elections and, given Kenyatta’s rejection of talks, repeatedly threatened to organise his own swearing-in ceremony and declare himself the “people’s president”. Having postponed several such ceremonies over past months, he has now set the date for 30 January. Kenyatta’s naming, on 26 January, of his full cabinet – appointing only ruling party supporters, in essence closing the door to any form of power-sharing – has foreclosed one option for defusing tensions. This has arguably further spurred the opposition to proceed with the 30 January ceremony, which it plans to hold in Uhuru Park in downtown Nairobi. Authorities say that venue is off limits, setting the stage for possible clashes between security forces and Odinga supporters arriving in the capital from opposition strongholds or informal settlements around the capital.

Pulling back from the brink

Odinga and Kenyatta are playing a high-stakes game of brinkmanship. Given deep social polarisation and a history of violent clashes between protesters and police, the two leaders’ actions could result in significant bloodshed. They need to pull back. Donors, civil society and business leaders should press both sides to accept some form of compromise to avert a dangerous escalation on 30 January. Western diplomats in particular, who continue to enjoy access to and influence with both men, should redouble efforts to broker a last-minute deal.

Such a deal would involve, first, Odinga calling off tomorrow’s ceremony. The oath-taking might in principle satisfy core supporters but in practice would achieve little in terms of advancing their interests. In return, Kenyatta should initiate talks with the opposition and accept an audit of the electoral system. Thus far, the ruling party portrays such an audit as unwarranted and Odinga’s demand for reform as a sign he cannot accept defeat. But a credible voting system is critical for Kenya’s democracy. While election officials operated in a tough environment, under relentless attack from politicians, the fact is that they failed to gain the trust of much of the electorate, which viewed them as both ineffective and partisan. An independent, time-bound audit would study the electoral commission’s work and develop recommendations for improving future elections.

Donors, civil society and business leaders should press both sides to accept some form of compromise to avert a dangerous escalation on 30 January.

If efforts to strike such a deal are unsuccessful, and the parallel oath-taking goes ahead, President Kenyatta should order the police to exercise restraint and avoid lethal force against protesters. He should also refrain from a crackdown on the opposition, which would only stir protests and further damage an economy struggling to recover from the crisis around last year’s elections. Kenya is routinely named as one of Africa’ most attractive destinations for foreign investment. But repeated clashes on the streets, particularly if they risk further instability, will do little to attract such investment and the badly needed jobs it creates. Politicians from all sides should refrain from inciting violence.

Lowering the political temperature

While the current crisis was triggered by the disputed 8 August vote, its roots run deeper. Since independence, successive Kenyan leaders have entrenched a system of ethnic divide-and-rule, inherited from British colonial administrators, and used an all-powerful and largely unaccountable presidency to reward ethnic allies. Notwithstanding reforms prompted by the violent crisis after the 2007 election, which resulted in a new constitution in 2010 that devolved power, established new checks on executive authority and entrenched judicial independence, Kenyan presidential elections remain winner-takes-all battles for power and control over state largesse. They involve fraught struggles between ethnic coalitions rather than contests over competing policy agendas or political visions for the country.

Ideally, a last-minute deal along the lines described above could create space for further steps to cool the political temperature and seek ways to improve the nature of political competition in future elections. Parliament, in which Kenyatta’s ruling party and its allies holds a plurality of seats with 193 out of 349 seats, should consider the creation of a position of official opposition leader, with a budget and perks. This would offer an olive branch to Odinga, reflect the support he commands (according to the electoral commission’s results he won some 45 per cent of votes in August) and help dial down tensions. It also would be a step toward greater inclusivity. Indeed, such a measure should be considered even if Odinga’s ceremony goes ahead.

Kenya’s leaders should also consider some form of national convention to review ways to reverse the zero-sum nature of elections. Power-sharing, which was used to resolve the 2007 crisis, appears no longer to be an option, since Kenyatta has named his cabinet. Both camps, however, might be open to talks on reform that could help end the cycle of election-driven political crises. These could consider farther-reaching reforms than those in the 2010 constitution, perhaps even examining the presidential system itself to widen representation in the executive. Such reform would likely be unpalatable so soon after a presidential election, but might be considered ahead of the next vote, scheduled in 2022. Moderates like respected former chief justice Willy Mutunga have called for such a convention to discuss fundamental structural reforms that might avert similar crises in future.

Kenya is one of Africa’s better established democracies and the economic and transport hub of East Africa. But its image and position are tarnished by repeated election crises. The 2010 constitution goes a long way toward improving Kenya’s political system and is justifiably a source of pride for the country. But last year’s protracted election crisis suggests further reforms are necessary. The country’s leaders – and Kenyatta and Odinga in particular – should move away from their confrontational positions and instead seek a path toward greater stability and prosperity.