Issue 1, 2018. February-March



International and local donor programs are empowering women in communities around Georgia to enter the workforce. In response, women are creating new businesses and carving out new lives for themselves and their families.

Inge Snip
Photos by My Sisters, George Surguladze

A soapy, repetitive sound and the crackle of burning wood are the only thing you hear in Irma's tiny bedroom. With her strong, muscular arms she kneads the wool, adding boiling water from time to time. Her hands seem to have gotten used to the burning temperatures.

"I've been making felt for 12 years," the 42-year old woman with dark brown eyes and wavy chestnut colored hair smilingly tells while she rolls the pink colored wool on an unstable table close to the window.

Irma lives in Nukriani, a small village in Georgia's eastern Kakheti region. When her father died, she knew she had to start making a living of her own. Irma joined a teka ("felt" in English) workshop, but she is not the only one in Nukriani who makes felt products, as several women make felt slippers and sell them in nearby Sighnaghi, a popular tourist destination, in the summer.

But the work is mostly seasonal and does, therefore, not create a reliable income.

That is why Anna Kharzeeva and Maria Shirshova started the social enterprise My Sisters a year ago, connecting felt creators-such as Irma and her sister Ia-with Georgian fashion designers and enabling them to sell their products globally.

"We saw all these fashionable people in Tbilisi," Kharzeeva tells over Skype, "but the felt products you can buy all had similar patterns; they were not exciting."

Knowing that Georgian fashion designers are blowing up worldwide, and understanding that the felt craft only bears seasonal fruit for the regional women, Kharzeeva and Shirshova decided to give Georgian fashion designers a chance to support rural women-while selling their products globally to a wide audience.

My Sisters is not the only project working to empower women in rural areas. Besides several smaller initiatives by NGOs and social enterprises, the UNDP launched a major program together with the UNFPA and UN Women in 2012 with the support of the Swedish government.

"When a woman believes in herself, when she knows she can accomplish things outside of her household, when you give women that kind of trust, they can also change things inside of the household and stand up against domestic violence, for example," Natia Natsvlishvili, Assistant Resident Representative at UNDP tells

According to nationwide research, 79% of Georgian men are part of the labor force, while only 60% of the female population are part of the labor force. These are women who can be economically active, but are not. That 20 percent makes a major difference in Georgia's annual GDP, resulting in the country losing 11% of its potential GDP as a result of the "misallocation of Georgia's human resource potential," according to the World Bank's 2016 Georgia Country Gender Assessment: Poverty and Equity Global Practice report.

The UNDP works with local NGOs, such as the Center for Strategic Research and Development of Georgia, in Samegrelo and Kakheti to economically and politically empower women. Natsvlishvili says they went door to door finding women in rural communities who were interested in participating in the several programs they had set up.

One of these was a vocational education program for female electricians established with a vocational education school in Poti. Not only did the first group of women who finished the program have the highest graduation rate, a part of the group also managed to become the most in-demand coalition for electricians for the private sector in Samegrelo.

"One of the major problems is a mismatch in skills and demand in the labor force," Natsvlishvili says, "which is why we partnered up with vocational training institutions to offer agricultural and hospitality courses all over the country for women."

And in farming, the UNDP saw another major success, spinning off from their project a small group of female farmers in Kakheti who started an association and, with only $7,000 in start-up capital and small-scale support thereafter from the UNDP, expanded nationwide. The association is now being included in all major policy changes at the governmental level in agriculture.

But the programs are just a start, says Natsvlishvili. Although the government is fully onboard when it comes to gender equality issues, Natsvlishvili hopes the government will additionally implement proactive measures to include more women nationwide in programs, such as Produce in Georgia, agricultural programs and innovation programs.

"As a society, we still have a long way to go; statistics from 2013 concerning "the ideal situation" showed that, according to 88% of society, the ideal situation is when the man is the breadwinner. This needs to change," Natsvlishvili concludes in our interview.

And for Irma in Nukriani, she knows all too well the importance of financial stability. "I don't have to worry for the future anymore, I am stress free, and that is such a freedom, you can't imagine," she says.

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