Georgian women’s rights activist and former Prague Civil Society Centre fellow shares her approach to advocacy and how she makes women heard.
For over a decade, Baia Pataraia’s name has been synonymous with active feminism in Georgia. A vocal advocate for women’s rights, she is the go-to expert interviewed on Georgian news and talk shows about issues affecting women.
Over many years of campaigning and advocating for more equal treatment of women in Georgia, where discussions of sexual abuse and bodily autonomy are taboo, she has learned how to frame and deliver her messages to the right audiences for maximum impact.
A human rights lawyer who previously worked for the Ministry of Justice, Baia is the director of Sapari, a Tbilisi-based women’s rights organisation striving to create an equal, non-discriminatory environment for women in Georgia. With Sapari, Baia runs creative campaigns raising awareness on topics like domestic violence, gender-based inheritance discrimination, harassment and sexual abuse. The campaigns rouse new segments of Georgian society to action on topics that are difficult to discuss publicly in socially conservative countries like Georgia.
Sapari’s campaigns almost always get a boost from Georgian media and involve celebrities, who amplify the message and add to pressure on lawmakers. And sometimes their efforts even result in real policy change. For example, after four years of campaigning by Baia and Sapari, in 2019 Georgia’s parliament adopted a law outlawing sexual harassment and instituting fines against those found guilty of making unsolicited sexual advances.
“Governments usually don’t have solutions. If you are really well prepared, your solution could be the one implemented”, Baia said at a presentation on advocacy strategy to a reunion of Prague Civil Society Centre fellows in Istanbul in September.
In addition to legislative change, Baia’s advocacy is regularly the lightning rod that draws women to the streets in Georgia to demand better treatment by their lawmakers as well as their society. Being the most vocal women’s rights advocate in Georgia means she has a critical platform to affect change, but it also means she is a constant target of backlash, threats and public ridicule on a national scale. In need of a break from the constant media attention, Baia came to Prague for three months in 2019 for a fellowship with the Centre, where she collaborated with colleagues from the Czech Republic and other fellows from Eastern Europe and Central Asia and honed her advocacy skills.
In order to build an effective advocacy strategy, Baia explains that you have to first analyse the power structures at work to define your audience, ultimately targeting those with both an interest in your issues and the power to create change. She emphasizes the importance of preparatory work: studying the problem and identifying root causes, collecting data, mapping other NGOs and allies who will support you, and creating a coalition. Using this pathway, you can then develop your framing, which is crucial, especially, as Baia can attest, in the context of women’s rights in Georgia. She gives the example of how she reframes advocacy messages around sexual education.
“If you start talking about sexual education in Georgia, you’ll be immediately attacked. It took ages, but I finally found a framework to talk about these issues”, said Baia, explaining that now when she goes on TV, she frames discussions of sexual health in terms of what she calls “bodily security”, and emphasises to parents that the best way to protect their children from sexual abuse is to empower them with knowledge about their bodies..
Another example of intelligent framing came earlier this year in reaction to a Russian-style anti “LGBTQ propaganda” law before Georgia’s parliament.
“Everyone expected us to run out into the streets waving rainbow flags”, said Baia. “But we didn’t do that. Instead, we had constitutional lawyers, straight men, go on TV and talk about how the law is unconstitutional and will limit the freedom of speech of everyone”.
This preemptive campaign succeeded and the bill was suspended in the spring. Nevertheless, activists warn it is necessary to be vigilant, as support for such a law could be easily revived before elections in 2024.
Baia also used creative reframing of a hot-button issues to bring her fellowship project to fruition. Originally conceived as a book for young women that would address commonly held misconceptions about bodies and sexuality, Baia decided instead to rework the same content into a small guidebooks aimed at young parents on how to teach their children about sexual health and bodily security.
“Talking directly to young people about sexual health in Georgia is very risky”, said Baia. “I had a publisher who believed in the first book and was willing to take that risk, but my goal was to get the information to young people, not create a backlash, so we found a better approach”.
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