Irma Japaridze, 50 years old, Mestia

“I’m a woman from Svaneti, where I’ve spent half a century. Although I had multiple opportunities to live in better conditions, in a big city, I couldn’t give up this place. I’m a woman deeply in love with mountains and my strength and character helps me live in these conditions and have the ability to fight. Yes, there were times when I was alone and was afraid of all the struggle ahead, but the next day, I felt strong and continued living full of energy again.
10 years ago, I started leading a vocational development training center in Svaneti. To be honest, in the beginning, I was looking at this with a bit of skepticism – I didn’t know what would come out. Professional education had such a tarnished reputation in the Soviet Union that so-called vocational schools were perceived as a place for punishment and no one continued to study there voluntarily. I had to work with such a legacy and it took me quite a long time to bring its importance and reputation back to make it a bright spot for our youth.
Young people in Svaneti can’t see their future opportunities. Vocational education has given them new hopes and new chances of employment. The training programs are designed to suit the specifics and requirements of the mountain. For example, I added the forestry specialist program. I also added the direction of IT technologies. We also meet the demand of growing tourism: we have a culinary academy and fully equipped sewing infrastructure, that can fulfill hotel needs. At this moment, our school can accept up to 200 students. I actively work with the private sector to make it easier for students to find jobs as soon as they graduate.
It’s very important for me that young women living in the mountains don’t only do so-called ‘’female professions’’, but to try their luck in other professions as well. When the enrolling period begins, I go door-to-door and convince women that they have a right and an opportunity to work in ”male professions”. Such jobs are in demand and highly paid and women must master these fields. I’m glad to have one woman in the electrical mechanic’s group, and she has already been employed with our help by a local company. I myself have gone through a lot of struggle and I want to make it easier for the women who are coming after me, to avoid them the same hardship.
I met a lot of resistance. The mountain has its laws – you might be a strong person, but you have to consider everybody’s opinions. Here a woman is seen as a housewife and it’s difficult to imagine women in leadership positions because people don’t perceive them as full-fledged persons. There have been cases where I found myself in controversies with men, and retreated strategically and used a man for the final talks. Sadly, I often have to display masculine manners to demonstrate my own strength.
I have the biggest fight with my own clan – 7 family men of my own last name oppose me and declared me a traitor. There is a territory near the vocational school, that since Soviet times belong to this college, where we decided to build a students’ dormitory. In the mountains, t’s very difficult to connect the villages with each other, and during bad weather and especially in winter, for students, it’s difficult to go to school. I have often offered my home to students. Therefore, the dormitory has vital importance for them. However, my family members claim ownership of this place and even though they don’t have any evidence to prove it (as is the case with most properties taken by the Soviets), they try to overpower me with male power that has standing in the mountain. This process is very painful for me. I don’t want to go through legal channels and have a conflict with them. For a while I tried to go through mediators, I even asked the elders to intervene in the negotiations and to make this area free again, which is now barricaded.
When I’m tired, I often think that I’ll just leave everything, but I remember the effort I already put in it and it gives me strength. Although the fight continues, I hope that in the end, I’ll still be able to show the importance of my fight to my opponents.”
Author: Maiko Chitaia
Photo: Geda Darchia
Translation: Mariam Kajrishvili