One woman’s painful crusade makes it easier for single mothers to get support
By Eka Chitanava
In 2007, seven months pregnant, Eka was kicked out of her family’s home. Shunned by the baby’s father and her parents, she had been sleeping rough for several nights before police picked her up on a beach in the seaside town of Adjara. She ended up in a Tbilisi shelter for victims of domestic violence.
With a shelter-provided lawyer, she sued the father for child support. So began a three-year court fight that would change the rules of the game for many single mothers in Georgia.
The father of Eka’s child had denied paternity and refused to be tested. Until late 2011 – well into the age of DNA, when biological ties can be identified with near certainty – such tests were not required by Georgian courts.
Without DNA evidence, judges had relied on other factors to determine whether a man could reasonably be considered a child’s father, such as whether the couple lived together, were married, or even owned property together. Which left women like Eka out in the cold, especially when the alleged fathers would not voluntarily submit to tests.
But then her case turned the Georgian civil code upside down.
In 2008 a court issued a summons requiring the man who Eka said was the father to take a DNA test, but he never showed up. The case went to the Supreme Court, which decided that even though the unmarried couple did not live or own property together, the defendant was likely the father of her child.
It was the first time a judge had ruled that since a man would not take a test, he must be the father, setting a precedent for unmarried couples in Georgia.
At the urging of the Anti-Violence Network of Georgia, a civic group that works with victims of domestic abuse, parliament enshrined the precedent in law late last year, requiring that anyone named in a paternity case who refuses to take a DNA test be acknowledged as a parent.
According to the National Statistics Office, 22,881 babies were born out of wedlock in Georgia in 2010, the highest number since 2007. From 2001 to 2010 the father was not identified in more than 2,600 cases a year on average
Manana Purtskhvanidze is a lawyer at the Anti-Violence Network, which runs the shelter where Eka wound up that night. She represented Eka in her landmark case. Purtskhvanidze said the network frequently deals with single women who have been kicked out of their homes after getting pregnant. They are often victims of domestic violence with little means of defending themselves.
Before the ruling, the attorney said, “women were totally insecure, left without moral and financial support, and a child could not get his or her father’s surname.”
Purtskhvanidze said legally recognized parents must provide up to 25 percent of their monthly income for child support and must count the child among their legal heirs. But the gap between law and reality is wide for some single mothers, including Eka.
After three years of litigation, the father of her daughter is still not making the 100 lari ($62) monthly child support payments ordered by the court. Nor has he made any effort to see the child.
“The law changed, but it didn’t really affect my life,” she said.
Eka, now 32, earns 380 lari ($234) a month working 12 hours a day in a department store. Her 4-year-old daughter spends that time at day care.
Though her meager salary is hardly enough to rent an apartment and pay for child care, Eka said she won’t go back to court: “I’m so tired of endless court hearings and appeals that I don’t have the strength to keep fighting."
Purtskhvanidze said it is difficult to track whether a father is performing his duties or not, often requiring the mother to spend more time and money in the courts. Further, Georgia offers no targeted assistance to single mothers whose annual income is at least 3,000 lari ($1,848).
“Such poor conditions make single mothers more vulnerable. For those who didn’t plan to become mothers, and it happened ‘by chance,’ it’s very stressful,” said Nino Razmadze, a social worker at the Anti-Violence Network.
This toll is especially heavy in Georgian society, where single mothers are stigmatized.
“In traditional Georgian families, it’s a source of shame to get pregnant out of wedlock,” Razmadze, said. “Georgian fathers and brothers are very strict. There are many cases when single mothers are victims of domestic violence. And very often they’re kicked out of the house, left without shelter and money. Almost all women in our shelter have been banished by their relatives.”
Eka said after four years her father remains angry with her.
“He told me that I have brought shame on the family,” she said. “Nobody was beside me when I gave birth to my child, I was so lonely, forgotten by parents and relatives.”
The only state institution for women in the position Eka faced four years ago is a three-story house in suburban Tbilisi that looks just like all the other buildings on the block. The only difference is the sign next to the door that reads “The Shelter for Single Mothers and Newborn Babies.”
It currently shelters 12 single mothers and their infants. One of them says, “I hid my pregnancy from my father and brother for eight months. Initially I wore loose, black clothes and then I moved to another city. I was scared of them – they could beat me. When they finally found out about my pregnancy, my brother called me and insulted me.”
Shelter director Irina Bekuridze says parents are the first to ostracize their pregnant daughters “because of a distorted understanding of traditions.”
Nino, another shelter resident, is here with her 6-month-old son. She says she was shattered by the callousness of her family. Her father forced her to leave home, and through her pregnancy only her mother visited her.
“During pregnancy they didn’t support me at all, and only after I gave birth to my son did they to reconcile,” she says.
The father of Nino’s child has another family – a wife and children – and he is not in Georgia now. He promised to give Nino’s son his surname but still has not seen the boy.
If the father does not materialize, Nino plans to take advantage of the recent changes in the law and require him to take a DNA test.
“The fact that a child is physically attached to me doesn’t mean that the father can shrug his shoulders and dodge responsibilities,” she says. “It’s just not fair.”Eka Chitanava is a reporter for the Tbilisi magazine Liberali. Photo by Rawle C. Jackman/flickr.