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Courtship by Abduction: Rights Groups Demand End to Georgia Tradition - 2003-02-12

Dating rituals vary in every part of the world. But in the Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union an ancient tradition exists that human rights activists say must be brought to an end: the abduction or kidnapping of young women by young men.

Nina was 18-years-old when she was "stolen." Her abductor, a man in his twenties, grabbed her off the street as she was walking to school.

With the help of four accomplices, he shoved Nina in his car and sped away. After driving for more than an hour, he locked her away in a room. Over the next week, her kidnapper came several times to see if she would agree to marry him, but she kept refusing. Once he became so angry he threw a chair at her.

Fearing for her life, Nina says she decided to make up a story.

She told her kidnapper she would stay with him, but only if he agreed to first marry her in a church. He quickly agreed and drove her home, where she ran into her parents arms and begged them to send him away. Nina says it was a long time before she felt free from fear.

She said she did not go out of the house for nearly a month, and even then she did not go far.

What happened to Nina is not unusual, in Georgia or other parts of the Caucasus. She says several of her friends were abducted when they were around 18 or 19 years of age. They got married, she adds, because they were afraid their reputations had already been compromised, but the marriages soon ended in divorce.

David Toloraia, a Georgian journalist who has written numerous articles on the practice of girl stealing in the Caucasus, says there were more than 30 such abductions in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, last year. Many more occur in villages across the country.

According to Mr. Toloraia, most men in Georgia see nothing wrong with kidnapping a woman they desire. But he says Georgia's women are beginning to rebel against the practice.

"They understood it is not reason to live with a man with whom you do not want to live, only because he kidnapped you and some neighbors would say something," said Mr. Toloraia. "If we look at neighbors, they always say something."

Why steal a girl? We put that question to a 29-year-old Georgian named Georgi. He said some men seem to find it romantic and admits that once, when he was in his teens, he helped a friend steal a girl. Georgi said to steal a girl requires some planning.

If the police catch you, he said, you will be arrested and so you need to find out when she goes out, with whom she goes out, and the routes she takes and whether or not there are police there.

Georgi, who today works at Georgia's justice ministry, said he knows at least one man who has gone to jail for stealing a girl. But as Georgi put it, "the man who does not take risks, does not drink champagne."

When told of this remark, Mr. Toloraia is dismayed. He says Georgi's attitude shows how far some of Georgia's men have to go before they realize kidnapping is a crime and a violation of basic human rights.

"They will understand it - not today, [but] maybe after two years, maybe after five years. And this tradition will die little by little," predicted Mr. Toloraia.

Georgi also thinks girl stealing will soon be a thing of the past, and he said he never once had the notion to steal himself a wife.

He says when you can not make a girl fall in love with you of her own free will and the only way left is to have to steal her, "you should be ashamed of yourself instead of being proud."