Revisiting the Past, Listening to the Future

30 Mar 2016

 Niels Scott, Head of UNDP in Georgia, announces the contest My Rustaveli. Photo: David Khizanishvili/UNDP

This spring, students from all over Georgia will be writing essays on a familiar topic: gender equality, through the eyes of one of the country’s most forward-thinking writers.  What you might not guess is that the writer’s name is Shota Rustaveli, who this year would be celebrating his 850th birthday.

UNDP together with the Ministries of Education and Culture are kicking off a campaign #MyRustaveli to empower women in Georgia by encouraging the country to celebrate the philosophies and literary tradition of this famous writer and gem of Georgia’s cultural heritage. A cornerstone of this campaign is a student essay contest that challenges youth to submit their own interpretations of Rustaveli’s writing in exchange for a chance to win fabulous prizes, to be doled out in abundance at an award ceremony in June.  Among the prizes will be an opportunity to work in a short-term paid internship with the Georgian Government and United Nations.  

Rustaveli, known by many as “Georgia’s Shakespeare,” is believed by a majority of Georgians to represent the climax of the country’s cultural golden age. In his epic work The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, Rustaveli describes what he sees as some of Georgia’s strongest and most noble values - friendship, unity, love and justice among them.  

Notably but perhaps not surprisingly, themes of gender equality and examples of strong female roles are also seamlessly interwoven in Rustaveli’s epic narrative, serving as a powerful reminder of Georgia’s long history of producing strong and capable women. In Rustaveli’s eyes, gender is almost beside the point, as the strength of a person’s character is the most important marker of greatness. As he says, “True and righteous justice goes from heart to heart.”

But this essay contest is not just about celebrating Rustaveli and his forward–thinking philosophies – it is also about getting a glimpse at where youth stand on this issue.  Speaking from my own experience, gender equality is all too often a topic of discussion in dusty office rooms or drafty conference halls, far removed from the reality on the ground and hardly ever even mentioning the youth demographic. Plenty of polls indicate that many Georgians still favor traditional gender roles and that women are still highly underrepresented in parliament and local government. What these polls don’t show is what today’s youth think of gender equality and how they will approach this topic once they grow to be Georgia’s next generation of leaders.

This campaign, however, brings the youth voice into the open on a national platform, encouraging them to share their ideas about their country’s heritage and what it means for the modern society that they will help to build. It brings Georgia’s youngest citizens together with one of its oldest and most iconic national voices, encouraging them to form a symbiosis that will bring the country into the future.

The fact that the Georgian Government will be offering to hire some of the winners is evidence that they are taking this seriously, and that they value what youth have to say on this issue and many others.  

The country is ready to listen – time will tell what they will hear. 

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