The inequality of women keeps the North Caucasus vulnerable

Corruption, violence and underdevelopment still plague Russia’s North Caucasus. By empowering women, the Russian authorities could build grounds for a more sustainable peace. 

Victoria Gurevich
12 June 2017

Chechen women near the Berkat market, Grozny. (c) Ramil Sitdikov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.The North Caucasus has a challenging history. Underdeveloped, plagued with violence and corruption, the region has struggled to arrive at peace and stability. Similar to the Russian Federation in many ways, such as in their shared history, political systems and popular culture, the republics of the North Caucasus observe traditions, culture, legal codes and attitudes that diverge from, and in some cases and oppose, those of the rest of the country. As a result, life in the North Caucasus can differ starkly from the experience in the rest of Russia, particularly if you’re a woman.

Women in the North Caucasus, especially in its eastern republics of Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia, routinely have their freedom limited and their potential suppressed. Bridal kidnapping, child marriage and honour killings are realities that threaten the lives of many girls and women. The circumstances of women in the North Caucasus are a major security vulnerability and a key cause of continued instability. But is it causally indicative that the region in Russia that marginalises its women the most is also the most dysfunctional and entrenched in violence? Or is it symptomatic?

Many, if not all, of the grievances of the North Caucasus (conflict-related violence, corruption and underdevelopment) can be ameliorated with the elevation of the social, economic and legal station of its women. It is in the Russian state’s best interests to advance the cause of peace and prosperity in its North Caucasus republics by protecting and empowering its female population.

Challenge: conflict-related violence

For decades after the collapse of the USSR, one of the most devastating and pressing concern facing the North Caucasus was armed conflict and violent insurgency. Various radical groups and extremely heavy-handed counter-insurgency have shattered the region, and continue to subvert any chance for stability.

If expulsion of violence from the region is the pursuit, then the inclusion of women in all spheres of life is a prerequisite

If expulsion of violence is the pursuit, then the inclusion of women in all spheres of life is a prerequisite. Beginning in the home, women play the central role in raising children and caring for the family. Empowering women through education and economic and legal initiatives translates into a generation of young people being raised in environments that are respectful, dignified and conducive to peace.

Mothers especially serve as an important figure in the lives of their children and their marginalisation adversely affects the worldview that the child holds. The case for the fair treatment of women expands beyond their immediate influence in the home, but also speaks as to how women pursue their emancipation.


July 2013: the house of the third wife of underground leader Magomed Suleimanov is destroyed by Russian security forces. CС Varvara Pakhomenko/International Crisis Group/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Recent trends indicate that more and more young, unmarried women from the North Caucasus are leaving to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq, a phenomenon that many experts observe as being a form of empowerment for them. In order to stop young girls and women from seeing violent radicalisation as the sole means by which to take control of their lives, more opportunities must be made available to them.

Women in the North Caucasus can be very outspoken against conflict-related violence and injustices, a recent example being the Mother’s Heart movement in Dagestan, which, in October 2016, organised in response to a string of abductions of young people.

Challenge: corruption

Widespread corruption can be found at virtually all levels of government and civil society, further debilitating development and contributing to instability.

Pervasive bribes at the local level may seem inconsequential in the overall elevation of the region. But the large scale graft, embezzlement and corruption that occur with federal and local budgets have stymied economic development and modernisation, thereby keeping the region dependent on Moscow. In 2013, Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia were dependent on federal subsidies for around 80% of their budgets; and in 2016, Chechnya benefitted from a 14 % increase in subsidies from Moscow during the first half of the year, despite the North Caucasus receiving a 12% region-wide decrease in subsidies. Furthermore, a program that was implemented in 2002 and intended to help finance Chechnya’s post-war reconstruction until 2020 was suspended in 2007 due to ineffective use of funds.

The large scale graft and corruption that occur with federal and local budgets have stymied economic development and modernisation, keeping the region dependent on Moscow

Evidence shows that there is a negative relationship between gender inequality and level of corruption, and a positive relationship between female employment and organisational effectiveness. A 2014 report for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on women in leadership found that “companies with three or more women in senior management functions score higher [in] organisational effectiveness.” This leads to the conclusion that women should be developed as leaders as they “contribute to their own organisations’ effectiveness and to the strength and resilience of their economies.”

While there are mixed reviews on whether or not women are less corrupt than men, several cities have tested the relationship between the inclusion of women and corruption, witnessing promising results. In Lima, Peru, public perceptions of bribery plummeted several years after 2,500 female traffic officers were deployed to the streets, and Mexico State's Transit Department took the Lima experiment one step further and removed every man from the traffic police force and hired 400 women.

In order to invigorate the economies of the North Caucasus and ensure financial reliability at the local and republic levels, more women must be encouraged not only to participate in public and professional spheres, but they must also be able to thrive and reach influential positions (where they are currently severely underrepresented). And with more women going to work, the child-care industry can undergo some much needed development.


Grandfathers and grandsons in a mountain village, Dagestan. CC-BY-NC-2.0: Dagestan Mountains and People Partnership / Flickr. Some rights reserved.As a result of high birth rates and insufficient funding, the North Caucasus has the “longest waiting lists for nurseries in the country”, with nurseries in Chechnya accommodating 146 children per 100 nursery places and Ingushetia being able to support “just over half of the republic’s children”. As women are able to join the workforce, the demand for child care services will increase thereby prompting expansion of such services through more private initiatives.

Challenge: under-development

In addition to corruption being a challenge in day-to-day operations and an impediment to financial security and sustainability, corruption also stands in conflict with growth and prosperity.

The North Caucasus republics are sorely underdeveloped, representing some of the highest levels of unemployment in Russia. While it may seem counter-intuitive to add people to an already underutilised labour force, a 2012 OECD report highlights a study that found that the inclusion of women in a work force actually helps economics grow. Studies done on household finances show that women are much more fiscally responsible and discretionary when it comes to allocating family resources. As opposed to fathers, mothers are more likely to prioritise expenses that benefit the children and other household operations rather than leisure activities. To take the decision-making values of women and elevate their role to a regional level would benefit the community at large. Initiative in this direction has been taken in India: a 1993 law which reserved 30% of the seats on village councils for women has been credited with improved public services and lower levels of corruption.

One analysis found that “gender equality is a better indicator of a state’s peacefulness than democracy, religion, or GDP”

An analysis conducted by Inclusive Security found that “gender equality is a better indicator of a state’s peacefulness than other factors like democracy, religion, or GDP” and that the more women there are in government, the less likely the state is to commit acts of political violence, another obstacle in the way of a flourishing society. Looking at the labour force participation rate in the North Caucasus, there are significant disparities between women and men’s engagement: 66.8% of women and 79.6% of men are counted as part of the labour force. Bringing more women in as decision makers would only benefit the North Caucasus, and Russia, as the republics would adopt qualities that promote stability and growth.

Proposed solutions

The challenges of the region do not have an easy cure, but any progress can only begin with the federal government abandoning its orientalist approach and taking the problem more seriously.

For one, Moscow should respond more strictly to official comments and announcements that oppose Russian federal law and values. Comments made by a Mufti in the North Caucasus during the summer of 2016 that encouraged the practice of female genital mutilation led to an international outcry, but resulted in little more than a few “official statements” and a half-hearted investigation in Russia.

Furthermore, Ramzan Kadyrov has been quoted as saying that Sharia law supersedes the laws of the Russian Federation, and has openly promoted polygamy, supported honour killings and enforces strict dress codes for women in his republic. The challenging and contradictory comments oftentimes made in the republics of the North Caucasus by various public figures have suggested claims that were not only illegal in Russia, their tolerance also threatens to exacerbate the conditions of an already repressive patriarchal society.

The first order of business must be the unshackling of North Caucasian women from local customs and regional laws that limit their potential and influence

At the same time, Moscow should encourage initiatives that promote the development and self-realisation of girls. A gymnastics centre in Grozny that opened in August 2016 met capacity enrollment for girls and boys just a few weeks after classes started , thereby demonstrating the eagerness of families to support both their sons and their daughters. Of the funding that Moscow already allots to the North Caucasus, a gendered aspect should be considered such that a portion of this funding is dedicated to initiatives that stand to benefit women and girls. Programmes, funding and other assistance should be made readily available to enable girls to flourish in all spheres — sports, arts and education — and opportunities for development and realisation stand to benefit women of all ages.


An elderly woman displaced during the Prigorodny Conflict between ethnic Ingush and Ossetians sits in her bullet-riddled home, North Ossetia, 1997. Photo CC-by-NC-and-ND-2.0: T. Bolstad / UN Photo / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Besides programmes that promote activities, efforts should also be directed at making women and girls aware of their legal rights, inadequate knowledge of which is often used against women in their private and public life. Local NGOs and women’s initiatives should sponsor work in this direction, which the federal government would be smart to support.

Women should be positioned equitably with men in all public sectors for a variety of priority, perspective and opinion. In order to support the hiring of women, Russia can establish quotas — such as India did with 30% of parliament seats being reserved for female MPs — or offer incentives to republics or districts that meet certain benchmarks, especially in industries that are asymmetrically staffed between the sexes.

The North Caucasus region has a multitude of strong, distinct traditions that add vibrancy and character to the region. But the condition of women cannot be the cost of preserving culture. If Russia is going to better position itself to address the challenges of its territory — conflict-related violence, corruption and underdevelopment — the first order of business must be the unshackling of North Caucasian women from local customs and regional laws that limit their potential and influence.


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