OSI Grantee Honored for Courageous Refugee Work May 2, 2008
On May 6, Gistam Sakaeva, project officer at the Chechen NGO Reliance, a grantee of the Open Society Institute, received the prestigious Voices of Courage award in New York. The Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, an international NGO based in New York, honors three women annually for their successful efforts to reduce violence against refugee women and girls. This year, the Women's Commission will also honor Kulah Borbor of Liberia and Shreen Abdul Saroor of Sri Lanka for their outstanding work.
A former refugee, Gistam has overcome tremendous adversity to help Chechen women find safety and rebuild their lives in the aftermath of two devastating wars.
Gistam has suffered repeated displacement since the start of the Russian-Chechen war in 1994, when she left for neighboring Dagestan, a region in the southernmost part of Russia. She began her long and extraordinary career on behalf of at-risk women during her three year stay at a center for internally displaced persons.
Her own house destroyed, she was forced to flee at the beginning of the Second Chechen War to a tent camp in the nearby Russian region of Ingushetia, along with hundreds of thousands of other Chechens. Pregnant with her second child, Gistam dedicated herself to aiding vulnerable people, particularly the disabled. When she refused to obey her now ex-husband's demand to stop working, he brutally beat her. When she divorced him, her ex-husband's family denied her custody and contact with her two children for several years, a common occurrence in Chechen society. At the same time, her own family suffered a series of rights violations stemming from the ongoing conflict.
"Gistam never lost hold of her compassion," said Roza Iznaurova, director of Reliance. "She believes that Chechen women trust and confide in her because she understands them."
In 2005, Gistam joined Reliance, the only NGO helping victims of gender-based violence in Chechnya. With help from OSI, Gistam is leading a range of innovative programs to combat gender-based violence, including a brave new initiative to work with perpetrators serving jail time for honor killings, as well as psychosocial counseling and legal advice for victims of domestic violence.
"Although this work is difficult, we are starting to see real success," said Gistam. "Participants in our program (in the jail) have opened up and are starting to reevaluate their attitudes toward women."
Reliance hosts trainings on women's rights and discrimination and works to educate the public through campaigns in schools and universities.
Gistam seeks to draw attention to the alarmingly high rate of violence against women in the forms of honor killings, forced marriages, rape, and domestic violence in Chechnya and the surrounding regions, a problem that has received little attention from the media and other international organizations.
"Gistam is an extraordinary individual," said Marla Swanson, senior program officer at the International Women's Program at OSI. "She has distinguished herself by tackling sensitive and taboo issues with bravery and ingenuity."
Women’s Rights and Social Change in Chechnya OSI-New York May 5, 2008 AUDIO OSI's Russia Project and International Women’s Program hosted a talk on women’s rights and social change in Chechnya with Gistam Sakaeva, program officer at the Grozny-based women’s NGO Reliance and a 2008 Voices of Courage honoree of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. more
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