Julia Kharashvili a woman who witnessed war, escaped from it, empowered herself and managed to empower other women around her - thirty years of commitment to peacebuilding and security.
This piece is part of our dossier "No Women - No Peace: 20th Anniversary of UNSC Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security".
An experienced peace activist with nearly thirty years of commitment to peacebuilding and security – this is how Julia Kharashvili could be summarised on her LinkedIn account. But this kind of brevity – so characteristic of the digital realm – doesn’t quite grasp the true dedication of a woman who witnessed war, escaped from it, empowered herself and managed to empower other women around her – both those with similar experience to hers, and those without.
The first sign of security for an IDP is having a roof over your head
For Julia, the concept of security has two dimensions: the personal and the political. The first is related to her own home in Abkhazia, which she was forced to leave as a result of conflict in 1992. It wasn’t just a building she lost, but the community itself – the roof, walls, soil, friends, relatives, and neighbours – everything that makes up one’s sense of home. She first re-visited her home two years after she had left it. The experience helped her to get rid of a regular nightmare: one in which she finds herself standing in front of the gate of her house, unable to enter the yard. She saw her house plundered, her children’s drawings littering the floor, with the footsteps of strangers imprinted all over them. The only things she took were those paintings, her personal notes and a vacuum flask. But freeing herself from a nightmare in her sleep didn’t mean she was absolutely released from it in real life.
‘Personally, I found a bit of peace only after I was able to buy an apartment. For the first time, I was able to fall asleep and have no nightmares. Before that I was scared; I used to wake up in the middle of the night worried about what future my kids would have if something were to happen to me. Once I got the apartment, I knew that they wouldn’t end up homeless. The first sign of security for an internally displaced person (IDP) is having a roof over your head’, she says.
The conflict in the Tskhinvali region in 2008 gave her a broader outlook, when she started working in conflict-prone villages. Julia saw clearly that there was an absence of comprehensive security, which includes economic and mental stability, access to justice and freedom of movement. This triggered her awareness that we don’t have a sustainable form of security, but rather an extended ‘no war – no peace’ scenario.
‘We don't know which family will be affected tomorrow. That’s why our work is important – to remind decision makers routinely of all of this and to teach the local population how to guarantee their own safety.’
Today, Julia is a chairperson of the IDP Women’s Association ‘Consent’, which she founded together with other IDP women from Abkhazia in 1995. Nowadays, most of their work aims to empower conflict-affected women. The educational projects they implement on a local level strengthen the women who live there.
‘We were a small group of IDPs with no voice. At first, when I entered a room full of decision makers, I was very nervous. I wasn’t scared, but I was slightly embarrassed. Now I talk freely with the UN Secretary General and NATO Secretary General. We’re trying to collect the voices of women and put them on the table in front of the decision makers.’
Human relationships are still present in the midst of our conflicts
One of Julia’s first, and subsequently most prominent projects was inspired by women. For a long time, IDPs from Abkhazia struggled to accept that conflict resolution generally takes more than a year or two. They never imagined that this process could continue for nearly three decades with the conflict remaining unresolved. After the second conflict in 2008, they started to accept that the conflict wouldn’t be solved for a while. This realisation led women from the region to worry about how their children could maintain a sense of connection with their original homes.
‘A child who is now six years old, or was born after the war, was not brought up with hatred and shouldn’t consider their Abkhazian peers as enemies, but as equals. This was our first concern’, she says.
As a result, in 1995, within the framework of a project of the United Nations Children's Fund, they began publishing a children's peace magazine called White Crane. For twelve years, Abkhazian and Georgian children wrote letters and exchanged drawings with each other. The magazine was distributed in schools and hospitals in Abkhazia. But when sending letters was no longer enough, another solidarity project was born: Peace Camp.
Peace Camp is where Georgian children and Abkhazian and Ossetian peers can meet each other on neutral territory. The camp also included children from Azerbaijan and Armenia. The process of creating those camps involved a whole host of logistical challenges. In order to achieve what she was trying to do, Julia had to visit the conflict zone and meet the de facto Minister of Education of Abkhazia. She is particularly grateful to the local non-governmental organisations that supported her in this process and for being brave enough to take such unpopular steps.
‘Honestly, I was scared, when I saw Abkhazia burnt, especially the Ochamchire District. Even the soil was burnt. These images still haunt me. Despite all of that, I didn’t sense that I was in a hostile environment. I just felt like I was in Sokhumi. That's why I believe that there’s always a chance of reconciliation and I really wanted to give this chance to young people’, she says.
If you give a child an education, you’re also building peace
While living and working in Sokhumi, Julia had always been a very active member of the community. A physicist by profession, she was working on her doctorate at the Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy in Sokhumi when her plans were interrupted by the war. Back in those days she didn’t consider herself a feminist. The understanding of just what women are capable of came to her after the war and it led to the establishment, together with other IDP women, of ‘Consent’.
Soon after the war, she moved to Tbilisi, where a research project was later carried out on the living conditions and particular needs of IDPs. 2,000 IDPs were interviewed across the country and humanitarian aid was distributed based on the results of the survey. The study showed that most IDPs were left barefooted. Children were going to school in shifts, because there was only one pair of shoes in the family. Basic goods were missing, including clothing, textbooks and food. Julia recalls that mobilising the male members of these families was a practically impossible task, since they’d given in to nihilism, losing their own motivation and losing even themselves.
‘When humanitarian aid was brought to IDPs, women carried the heaviest of the food packages. Seeing this, I understood that if anyone is capable of rescuing the country and its population, it’s women’, she says.
After three decades of work as a peace activist, she doesn't agree with the idea that women are perceived as natural peacemakers or peacekeepers – she prefers to call female peacebuilders ‘guardians’. Her philosophy is based on the belief that if you help a doctor to get to a patient in the conflict zone, this is peacebuilding; and if you give a child an education, you’re also building peace.
She is deeply convinced that in the process of peacebuilding, the hardest and most tedious work is done by women. She believes that, in the narrative around women, peace and security, this recognition of their daily, essential contribution is often missing.
“Women are ready to work on unpopular issues. Peacebuilding often looks attractive on the surface, but the most essential work is actually very difficult. It’s also difficult to work on prevention. Someone may come and say that nothing bad would ever happen, but you know that you’ve done things and avoided damage”, she says.
In her opinion, women peacebuilders lack institutional support – they need special projects and plans aimed at their empowerment.
‘The logo of our association is a woman emerging from the trunk of a tree, holding a nest with eggs in it and trying to protect it. There are several eggs in the nest, and this represents not only the family they belong to, but also the country. The female figure in the logo is the guardian of everything and everybody. She knows best what kind of world her child should grow up in.’
Resolution 1325 should be considered a tool for every challenge which affects women and men in different ways
Whenever Julia talks about her female partners, she refers to them as ‘co-builders’. These are the women with whom she started her activism. The list includes women working in the regions of Georgia who are well aware of the needs of people far from the capital. She frequently mentions Marina Mirianashvili, who was member of parliament, but their cooperation started long before, when they were working at the Center of Social and Humanitarian Initiatives NGO. They made the first list of people killed in Abkhazia, managed to re-connect people wounded in war with their families. Theirs was one of the first female partnerships and an experience they shared to the benefit of others.
She is close to like-minded activists not only on a country level, but within the wider region as well. Arzu Abdullayeva is a peacebuilder from Azerbaijan with whom Julia has personal and professional ties. She was inspired by Arzu and her late friend Anahit Bayandur, from Armenia, and the effort they made to find the peace for two nations in South Caucasus.
In her career, Julia has faced many obstacles, but now she prefers to focus on difficulties on an institutional level. The foremost concern, in her mind, is that there is no model for sustainable peace.
‘We talk a lot about conflict, but we don’t talk about peace at all. What does this sustainable peace bring us and why do I need to be involved? We only have rhetoric about how we’ll return, thank you very much. After that, we’ll inevitably face new challenges … are we aware of that? We don’t talk about it. It is a huge obstacle’, she says.
On the 20th anniversary of the UNSC resolution 1325, Julia considers the text on women’s participation to be the best part of the document. Women are not viewed only as victims, but as active participants in the peacebuilding process. The resolution is a very important tool for women to speak up about their needs.
Julia thinks that the world needs a broader understanding of Resolution 1325. The approach that you don’t need the resolution if your country doesn’t have a conflict is a mistake, and the recent pandemic has proved this. Women are more affected, since medical personnel are mostly female, most of the consultants in grocery stores are female, even journalists are mostly female.
‘We need to consider the resolution as a tool not only for conflict, but for every challenge which affects women and men in different ways. The resolution is becoming more universal, meaning it can bring more opportunities for women to participate.’