Tamar (not her real name) was 30 and a mother of two children when she found out she was facing an unintended pregnancy. She and her husband had endured a miserable marriage and were in the process of splitting up, and although employed as a teacher, she couldn’t afford to raise another child alone. “The salary doesn’t pay that well. It’s not enough to meet basic needs. My job is not enough to support my family, no way,” she says.
Tamar, now 45, lives in the southwest of Georgia. Poverty levels are high in her region and life for communities can be hard. Women tend to be caregivers, at home raising children, and many people are unemployed. There are many obstacles to women’s sexual and reproductive freedom.
IPPF member HERA XXI is one of the few organisations providing sexual and reproductive health care and sexuality education to women and young people in this region, which comprises the city of Akhaltsikhe and surrounding villages. They’re only able to cover a relatively small part of the area according to Marine Sudadze, a community leader and director of HERA XXI's local youth centre. She says a big problem is that the government neglects women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights: “They will claim that they are funding programmes that benefit women, but when it comes to reproductive health we don’t see that support,” she says.
One major problem that results in unintended pregnancies is the state’s ongoing failure to equip young people with crucial life skills relating to sexuality and relationships. “Back then I couldn’t even recognise a condom, it was something very alien,” says Tamar, referring to the period before her first unintended pregnancy.
As abortion care takes place in private clinics across Georgia, the price of the treatment can vary greatly. Generally, however, it is very expensive for women from smaller cities and rural communities like Tamar. Because of the prohibitive cost, many attempt to take matters into their own hands.
“When I found out I was pregnant and I tried to end the pregnancy with a self-administered calcium injection,” says Tamar. The injection caused blood poisoning and proved to be life-threatening. Tamar needed emergency medical treatment.
“It was terrible; first of all I was trying to hide what I had done. I was also very angry about not getting support,” says Tamar, who felt abandoned by her government for not providing the health education or affordable care that would have protected her from harm. Only after recovering from this painful experience did Tamar finally receive contraceptive care from the doctors.
About five years ago Tamar was faced with another unintended pregnancy during an informal relationship. She describes feeling that her only option was to end the pregnancy. “I was worried what people would think… It wasn’t a problem for me to have a child out of wedlock, but it would have been a problem in my community,” she says. Tamar explains that many elements of a woman’s sexual and reproductive lives are stigmatised in the region. “A woman might be ashamed if someone found contraception in their handbag, they’re worried that they’ll be criticised or mocked. Even if a woman buys a pregnancy test, people have a reaction to that, because during communist times sex was hidden away, it was not openly talked about,” she says. Georgia was part of the Soviet Union from 1921 to 1991, and many values and traditions from this time persist across the country.
Stigma and discrimination resulting from patriarchal cultural norms force many Georgian women to travel long distances to other cities, at great financial burden, to preserve their privacy. Shockingly, they are also perpetuated by medical professionals, many of whom deny women compassionate, confidential care. This was the case for Tamar, who had to rely on the help of her family to get the support and treatment she needed. “My brothers had to pay for me to go to the doctor and have the abortion. It was not only about the paying, it was also getting the required attention. It was complicated; they used their connections.”
Like many women, Tamar wanted to keep the abortion secret as she was worried about mistreatment from her community, but when she got to the surgery, “I found that the doctors knew my ex-husband. They did not respect my wish to keep it secret,” says Tamar. The doctor violated her right to privacy by sharing her personal information with her ex-husband against her wishes.
Five years later, she doesn’t feel much has changed for women in the country: “I can’t guarantee my situation could not happen to somebody else, even in modern times,” she says. Yet, despite her painful history and the longstanding challenges to women’s reproductive rights in Georgia, Tamar still manages to look forward: “Although I have gone through hard times, I try to see positives,” she says.
Click to read our blog series on obstacles to abortion care and women's reproductive freedom in Georgia, and find out how IPPF EN is standing firm against reproductive coercion in Europe and Central Asia.
Photo credit: Jon Spaull/IPPF EN