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Women in the North Caucasus Conflicts: An Under-reported Plight
Women in the North Caucasus Conflicts: An Under-reported Plight
Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov walks before a meeting of the state council at the Kremlin in Moscow, on 18 September 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Report 236 / Europe & Central Asia

Chechnya: The Inner Abroad

A powerful propaganda machine promotes the “success story” of today’s Chechnya. But its peace is fragile; government repression is used to keep the people at bay while economic inequality, poor social infrastructure, lack of genuine reconciliation and almost full impunity for past abuses reflect the republic’s daily reality.

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Executive Summary

Chechnya has made great progress in suppressing insurgency, reconstructing cities and improving its image and official economic indicators. Moscow sees it as a successful model for regions afflicted by deadly violence associated with Islamist insurgency. But stability is deceptive. The leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has used special ties with President Vladimir Putin, more autonomy than other regional leaders and Moscow’s near unconditional support to make the republic a virtually independent polity, with its own ideology, religious policy, security structures, economy and laws. Its peace is fragile, a result not only of highly personalised governance reliant on repression and arbitrariness that Moscow tolerates and covers up, but also economic inequality, poor social infrastructure, lack of genuine reconciliation and almost full impunity for abuses. To safeguard Russia and Chechnya against new violent conflict, Putin should rein in Kadyrov by insisting on the republic’s better integration with the national state and its laws, more freedom and security for its citizens and accountability for its government.

30 June 2015
Faced with violent repression and no process of reconciliation, what keeps the population obedient is fear. But for peace to become real, collective punishment and intimidation must make way for the rule of law and accountability.

Ekaterina Sokirianskaia

Project Director, Russia & North Caucasus

There has been no authentic political solution to the Chechen conflict, which broke out in 1994, followed by de facto independence (1996-1999), then a second war in 1999 and ongoing insurgency. The political process begun in 2003 installed the formerly separatist Kadyrov family. Many rivals or opponents fled or were killed; local strongmen loyal to the regime took control of federal institutions. Armed separatists were captured and disarmed in mop-up operations, while demobilisation and reintegration of ex-combatants was achieved by force or by encouraging them to join pro-federal groups that were later merged into the interior ministry and whose largely preserved command chains contribute to local security agencies’ extensive autonomy. Reforming these institutions and dismantling such parallel elite structures is essential for any sustainable resolution to the conflict in the long term.

The significant reduction in insurgent activity owes much to widely applied collective responsibility, whereby relatives of rebels have been harassed, threatened, held hostage or had their property destroyed. In recent years, counter-insurgency has been very heavy-handed; soft measures successfully tested in neighbouring Ingushetia are rejected. Chechen nationalism has been gradually superseded among fighters by the ideology of transnational jihadism. Ideological schisms, the drain of fighters to Syria and appeal of Islamic State (IS) ideology have also contributed to the insurgency’s defeat. In mid-June 2015, the “amir” of Chechen jihadis swore allegiance to IS, thus completing abandonment of the Chechen cause. However, Chechen-Russian reconciliation has not started, and the wars’ root causes remain unaddressed.

30 June 2015
Despite superficial appearances, Russia’s arrangement in Chechnya has not resolved the conflict. The insurgency continues to recruit, and stability is illusive and overly personalised. Violence could easily reemerge, particularly if power were to change hands”

— Varvara Pakhomenko

Former Europe & Central Asia analyst

A powerful propaganda machine promotes the “success story” of today’s Chechnya. Kadyrov, frequently referred to simply as Ramzan, is portrayed as a popular, virtuous leader, with an aura of omnipresent control and invincibility. The official ideology combines Chechen nationalism, devotion to President Putin, Russian patriotism and Sufi Islamism. Nationalism and traditionalism are relied on to create an illusion that the republic offers its people a high degree of self-determination. While trying to eradicate memories of his separatist predecessors, Ramzan provokes tensions by taking over some of their slogans, including territorial claims on neighbouring Ingushetia.

Displaying strong loyalty to Presdent Putin and bringing thousands into the streets for public events, Ramzan has repeatedly said the Russian leader should be in office for life and that he is ready to fight for him wherever asked. In turn, he appears to receive full support and impunity from the federal centre. Ramzan seems to have convinced the Kremlin that only he can control Chechnya, with the result that Moscow is as dependent on him as he is on Putin. The Chechen leader’s powerful enemies within the Russian military and security services resent that their government has little leverage over its erstwhile breakaway republic and appear to await an opportunity to bring him down, but little can be expected to come from this unless he displeases the Russian president.

The republic’s religious life is the most regulated in Russia. Sufi Islam is part of official ideology, and forced Islamisation has eroded principles of the secular state. At the same time, Chechen authorities are militantly hostile to any form of religious dissent, openly call for the killing of “Wahhabis” and regularly use violence against individuals displaying Salafi symbols.

Chechnya has its own economic regime. Between 2002 and 2012, it was funded directly through two special federal programs that supported reconstruction but were unable to revive production. Now it has its own ambitious plans for economic recovery. Official statistics show steady growth and solutions of social problems. However, locals say the figures are misleading, unemployment remains high, and they suffer from egregious corruption and a parallel system of economic relations reportedly based on extortion and informal taxes and dues.

Though its judicial system mostly complies with the formal criteria, the republic largely functions outside the framework of Russian law. Violence by state agents has reportedly become more targeted, but allegations of grave human rights violations continue. Federal prosecuting agencies are ineffective in dealing with such crimes, due in part to intimidation. Judges are subjected to open, sometimes brutal pressure from Chechen authorities. The European Court of Human Rights has issued almost 300 judgments on Chechnya. Russia implements the portions that deal with compensation, but not their requirements to conduct proper investigations. Security officials instrumentalise application of Chechen traditional law (adat). With honour killings, underage marriages and violence against them on the rise, women suffer most from revived traditionalism.

Chechens have no mechanisms available to hold the regime to account. The system functions due to a climate of fear. Collective punishment muffles protest. Not only political rivals, but also intellectuals, journalists and NGO leaders can be subjected to intimidation, humiliation and violence. As the republic drifts further away from Moscow, Russia’s own democratic deficit and the related lack of positive political dynamics in Chechnya alienate those Chechens who sincerely want to be part of a modern, secular Russian state.

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.