William Vest-Lillesoe
03 May 2023


"I have been gassed with pepper spray for the last 24 hours. I feel terrible. People were beaten up next to me".

Ana, 16, GrlzWave

Ana is exhausted after three days of protesting in front of Georgia’s parliament – protesting for civil society’s right to exist, for the voices of women and girls, against discrimination of LGBT+ groups, and against Russia’s aggression as an occupier of large parts of her country.

Georgia has always been a country nestled smack in the middle of geopolitical fault-lines – between Russia and Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. Amidst war in Ukraine, Russian occupation and aspirations of EU membership the government and its allies suddenly introduced a Foreign Agent Law in February this year – modelled after similar laws in Israel and not least Russia where it is has all but obliterated civil society and been used to crack down on any critique of the State. Four days of massive protests followed – and for now it has paid off! But though the law has been withdrawn powerful politicians continue their harassment of particularly those fighting for LGBT+ rights.

GrlzWave image 1

Among those at the forefront of the protests is GrlzWave – a feminist organisation and multimedia platform started a few years ago by three young women who were fed up with a system ruled by conservative and religious patriarchs. We met Ana and Atina from GrlzWave at a café in central Tbilisi to learn about their digital activism and how they have managed to engage a generation of young Georgians on issues of feminism and queer rights.

“We're a country where femicide is on the rise, where women are literally getting killed on a daily basis because they're women,” says Ana.

“Girls here are brought up with a lot of shame and self-restraint. We're taught to behave in certain ways. And it took a lot of time for me to start deconstructing what I was taught from a very young age that, for example, my primary function is to get married and have children.”

Atina is a founding member of GrlzWave. Together with two friends she decided to change the narrative around women, girls and gender roles in Georgia by using expressions and platforms that speak to her own generation. Their first video campaign took a stab at demystifying misconceptions around the vagina and sexual health and got more than 700,000 views. The resulting attention and feedback – positive as well as negative – reassured them that they were on to something.

Since then, GrlzWave has continued to build a digital following while also venturing into graffiti, yoga sessions, workshops, movie screenings, exhibitions and much more. They have also collaborated with private companies like Body Shop on joint campaigns.

GrlzWave main image 3
Credit: GrlzWave

"We live in a country which is crazy polarised. I believe polarisation is a global threat, not just a local one. Whether it’s El Salvador or Georgia or somewhere else. It’s going to sound cliché, but we need to talk to people. To listen more".

Ana, 16, GrlzWave

For GrlzWave the important thing is to be where young people are – and that is very often online explains Atina: “Imagine being a queer kid in rural Georgia. You are even more stigmatised and there are no queer spaces, nothing. You feel so estranged, so isolated. Imagine not knowing that there are people out there who can help you, who support you, who are like you. This is the main weakness of many organisations in Georgia, (including ours) who are offering important services to women and queer people – we sometimes fail to reach the people who need it the most.”

One of the aspects of GrlzWave that Ana and Atina are most proud of is the focus on storytelling and intersectionality. Atina stresses the importance of reaching outside your own bubble – and to seek alliances and support each other’s causes broadly. Both in your own country and internationally:

"We live in a country which is crazy polarised. I believe polarisation is a global threat, not just a local one. Whether it's El Salvador or Georgia or somewhere else. It's going to sound cliché, but we need to talk to people. To listen more.”

While the success of the young organisation has been amazing the life as an organiser and activist also takes its toll. The recent protests demanded a lot of the people fighting for their basic rights – including Ana and Atina.

“I think burnout is the number one problem for many of us. That’s also why we started doing community activities like sound healing and yoga sessions.”

One thing that helps Ana keep grounded is storing mementos from her life and her struggles in a memory box: A literal box with event stickers, cloth from a rainbow flag and other small items that she constantly reorganises.

"They are artifacts from experiences I've had with protests. It truly reminds me of tough times but it’s also like a monument of participation in life. If there was a fire, it's the one thing I would take."

Ana, 16, GrlzWave

GrlzWave main image 3
William Vest-Lillesoe