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Women in the North Caucasus Conflicts: An Under-reported Plight
Women in the North Caucasus Conflicts: An Under-reported Plight
To Keep the Peace, We Need More Women
To Keep the Peace, We Need More Women
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.


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.

Op-Ed / Global

To Keep the Peace, We Need More Women

Originally published in The Globe and Mail

Ahead of the 14-15 November 2017 UN Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial conference in Vancouver, Crisis Group's President & CEO Jean-Marie Guéhenno writes that greater female participation in UN peacekeeping can help UN missions fulfill their mandates.

International commitment to greater female representation in peacekeeping has lost considerable impetus. Though rhetorically committed, United Nations leaders, both civilian and uniformed, have often regarded gender issues as non-essential and dispensable. But in the absence of genuine attention to women's political participation and gender dynamics in conflict-affected societies, UN peacekeeping risks failing to fulfill its mandate.

On Nov. 14 and 15, Canada will host the annual UN peacekeeping summit. With more than 500 delegates from 70 countries and international organizations gathering in Vancouver, this high-profile event can serve as a much-needed catalyst to reinvigorate international commitment to gender equality in peacekeeping. Without global leadership, decades-long efforts to strengthen gender-sensitive responses risk falling into inertia.

Evidence suggests that female peacekeepers can serve as role models for local women, improve relations with the host community, and facilitate information-gathering in societies where locals are dissuaded from interacting with outsiders of the opposite sex. Increasing women's presence is also key to reducing the incidence of rape and use of prostitution by peacekeeping forces. In cases of sexual abuse, victims indicate that it is easier to report sexual crimes to peacekeepers of the same sex.

Increasing women's presence is [...] key to reducing the incidence of rape and use of prostitution by peacekeeping forces.

Efforts to increase the number of female peacekeepers, however, have long been disappointing. In recent years, women's participation, which comprises less than five per cent of peacekeeping forces globally, has remained low and shows no signs of increasing. There are currently only two women out of 15 heads of peacekeeping operations.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has pledged to reach gender parity across all UN agencies by 2030, but the organization has little influence on who gets recruited and deployed by troop-contributing countries. Some member states have adopted policies to increase the number of women in their security forces – Canada is a case in point, with its goal to increase the number of female peacekeepers every year – but most troop-contributing states have poor credentials in female representation in their forces. Contributing nations should be encouraged to provide more female peacekeepers.

Of course, addressing gender-specific needs and interests in peacekeeping requires more than simply increasing the number of women. It calls for thorough analysis of gender dynamics and realities in societies where peacekeepers operate. This can only be achieved if UN peacekeeping leaders make a conscious effort toward integrating gender dynamics in their work and reflecting them as they devise new policies and interventions. Increasing the number of gender advisers directly supporting heads of peacekeeping missions, and ensuring that they are not sidelined, would be concrete steps in that direction.

Research on gender by International Crisis Group has shown that, in times of conflict, the experiences of men and women vary considerably. As conflict disrupts traditional livelihoods, men predominantly join the ranks of soldiers on the front line, while the economic burden on women increases, along with the number of female-headed households. Likewise, crises are likely to exacerbate existing discrimination against women and girls and distort traditional social norms. Devising sustainable solutions for peace is impossible without taking into consideration these issues. Liberia, where women played an important role in the negotiations leading to peace, is a case in point.

There is also a need for greater awareness of the gender-specific impacts of conflict, in order to devise appropriate interventions. In recent decades, forms of violence have emerged that take the gender identity of the victim as their primary target. This is especially true in situations where sexual violence is turned into a weapon of war. But more broadly, at times where law and order have broken down, women and girls of all ages may be left with few options to survive, sometimes compelling them to break societal norms. This fuels a vicious circle of violence, exclusion and stigmatization.

It is particularly regrettable that reports keep emerging of sexual abuse by peacekeeping troops while the UN has limited means of holding those responsible to account. The revelations of widespread sexual abuse in recent news illustrate that violence against women and girls, including in the home, exists within many societies – rich and poor. But as conflict exacerbates underlying tensions that encourage predatory behaviours and further compound women's insecurity, it is the responsibility of national leaders, as well as peacekeeping heads, to support robust systems to prevent such violence and protect groups at risk. A strong personal commitment of the leadership is a critical component of an effective response to sexual abuse.

Without resources or dedicated personnel, there is a strong possibility that gender expertise will remain excluded from decision-making and program development processes.

In June, the UN General Assembly voted to cut $600-million (U.S.) from the organization's annual $8-billion peacekeeping budget, resulting in the removal or downgrading of several field-level positions responsible for integrating the gender perspective in the work of peacekeeping missions. One of the impacts of budgetary pressure on peacekeeping has been the reluctance to ensure that vacant gender adviser positions within missions are filled. Without resources or dedicated personnel, there is a strong possibility that gender expertise will remain excluded from decision-making and program development processes.

As Vancouver prepares to host this year's United Nations peacekeeping summit, member states should follow Canada's lead as an internationally recognized advocate for women's rights and gender equality. They should make concrete commitments to expand female recruitment in their security services and concurrently increase the deployment of female peacekeepers.