Venera Martkoplishvili, 63, Gardabani

“I got married when I was 14, this was a love marriage, as they call it. I am not sure I was sane, I even did not finish the 8th grade… I am from Dedoplistskaro. He was a Romani boy from Gurjaani. We met each other in Dedoplistskaro, where he worked. So, I followed him to Gurjaani but my parents took me back soon. I was reluctant to go back with my parents but they told me I could marry him when I finished school and allowed my husband to visit me from time to time. But as soon as I finished the 8th grade I got back to my husband again. Then I studied accounting for four years at a vocational school in Lagodekhi. We rented an apartment there but I could hardly finish it because we often travelled home and then back to Lagodekhi. Then I was enrolled at a distant learning program of Polytechnic Institute and studied economics. I had to go through rough times but I still managed to finish my studies. Since all of my siblings (we were seven siblings) in my family got higher education, I also wanted to get it and fought for that. My husband was not against my studying. At the same time I was selling things. I needed some money to cover my travel and living expenses, did not I? So, I went through tough times but still graduated from the institute. I had not worked since because I could not cope with the family, who did not allow me to work. A woman has to beg, fortune-tell or sell things to earn some money. Although they let me study, it was a shame in the Roma community to work anywhere.

I lived with my first husband for 13 years. I had 4 children with him. Through those 13 years he married other women about four times. Meanwhile, I lived with his parents and suffered. He used to come back home when he abandoned any of those women. It is accepted practice in the Roma community to have two or three wives. But I am Georgian and I could not put up with living together with my husband, when he had the second and third wife.

In 1991-1992 during the presidency of Gamsakhurdia, when we lived in Gurjaani, the Romani were ousted from Georgia. They told me that I could stay because I was Georgian but my husband was leaving so I had to go with him. We took everything I got from my parents – whether it was a bedroom set or blankets and matrasses – by a big trailer and left for Russia. We stayed there for several months, renting an apartment. Then we went to Chechnya, as we could no longer pay the rent or buy a house. We suffered a lot and had to leave things at different places because we could not afford to rent a truck and take everything with us. From Chechnya we moved to Baku, from Baku to Kirovabad, and then to Tsnori. My sisters live in this borough. When I got to Tsnori I head only a car and one tent, we did not have anything else. We sold the car and bought a house in Tsnori. Three days after buying the house my husband left me for his fourth wife. Later he had a child with her. Three years had passed since he left. He had never visited me during that time. People saw that I was a single woman and both Romani and Georgian men bothered me so much that I had to marry again. My husband had two children. We brought them up and had one girl together. I have five children in all.

I had a terrible nomadic life. None of the Georgian women would have been able to withstand all the sufferings I had gone through. My family used to tell me all the time to come back until I had a child, to leave the family and go back to normal life, but I loved my husband and at the same time I thought what people would say about me. In short, even though I suffered a lot, I did not have enough courage or did not want to leave my family… I was even abused physically – by my husband, father-in-law and sister-in-law, all of them used to beat me if I dared to speak out.

A woman is responsible for doing everything in the Roma community. She is supposed to be out from morning till evening to earn some money. When she comes home she has to cook, split firewood and bring some water. Neither my first nor my second husband had ever brought any water home. I have no idea how I survived. When I married for the second time, believe me, sometimes I got to the point that I even beat many men when a fight broke out among them after they drank together with my husband. My mother-in-law and sisters-in-law just drew me crazy, I do not know what kind of persons they were to mistreat me like that… But I was so fed up I did not meet them half-way. Yes, I had to become stronger and stand up for myself.

In 2009 representatives of one organization were visiting our place. They took Romani children to a Georgian school in Dedoplistskaro. I helped them because I knew the Georgian language. After that George Sordia offered me to take some training course in Tbilisi. After attending the training course, I founded an organization with their support- Kakheti Roma Alliance – Roma. I could hardly do anything from Dedoplistskaro, so I decided to move to Tbilisi and rent an apartment to work in this direction and get in touch with organizations/people who would assist me. Currently I am also a member of the Council of Minorities at the Public Defender’s Office and work on Roma rights through the implementation of the projects of my organization. This community has a great confidence in me. I have gained their trust since I founded the organization and started implementing different projects for the Roma community. I work in Gachiani, in Telavi, west Georgia and I help them with passportization, education of children, writing applications to different agencies and preparing documentation, in court… So I accompany them everywhere. All of them contact me because they trust me. For example, when some Television or organization visited them before, they did not allow them to come any closer because they were afraid all the time. But if I called them or accompanied the visitors, they accepted us well. Moreover, they call me and ask me whether they should meet someone, who is interested in meeting them. When I agree, they allow them to make video recordings and talk to them.

Roma women live in much worse conditions than Georgian women. I am rather sorry for them because I went through that nightmare myself. Therefore I also work on issues related to violence against women, discrimination and gender in the Roma community. I have called the patrol police many times to prevent family violence and accompanied the women in court.

Romani girls are given away in marriage at the age of 13-14. They are not even asked what they want; they are forced into marriage. Can you imagine what kind of life they may have?! They are victims of violence from the very first day of their marriage. Sometimes they are married to an older man, whom they do not love, so their whole life is suffering. It is also the violation of children’s rights when they force minors to marry, is not it?! On the contrary, sometimes a boy is 13 years old and a girl is older, 15 years old. Often this 13-year kid is not able to have a sexual intercourse with a girl… So, if no sexual intercourse takes place during the first night of marriage, they take the girl to a specially selected woman to undergo defloration. Can you imagine the extent of violence they are subject to?! What is their life supposed to be like after that?! Everyone should know this because this is a crime which has been practiced to date in the Roma community! My girls were subjected to the same violence and I could not stand up for them because I lived in the community and my husband would have probably killed me if I had done that. I have campaigned against this practice in the community since the foundation of the organization. I could not protect my children, I was absolutely powerless when they were given away in marriage at the age of 13 but maybe I will be able to protect my grandchildren and eventually put an end to such cruelty?!

I am happy that people have become cautious since the law on child marriage changed and they learned that infringers had to pay penalties. For example, one of the boys kidnapped a girl two months ago, but returned her back to her family without touching her because they got afraid of the police. A 14-year old girl has been engaged in Gachiani but they are not planning to have a wedding until she turns 18. I wish they introduced this practice! At least they will come of age by the time of the wedding and girls will decide either to marry or not marry. The law has been enforced and I am rather happy to already see its positive consequences.”