"Leave No One Behind" – in focus of Swiss engagement (Part 3, Georgia)

Article, 15.12.2022

The article below is the third in the series of articles focused on Switzerland’s commitment to fight multifaceted poverty, end exclusion, and reduce the inequalities that leave people behind. This story is a look at how vocational education opened a window of opportunity to a young single mother with a disability.

Ilona posing in front of the waterfall
Theoretical and practical knowledge acquired at the college will help Ilona start her own business ©Ilona Absandze

It’s never too late

Ilona, now 27, was not even born when the war in Abkhazia broke out and her family had to flee to Zugdidi, an administrative center of the Samegrelo region, Georgia.

"I was born with upper limb reduction defect in an old, shabby and overloaded hospital in Zugdidi," says Ilona strenuously as if trying to encapsulate the tragedy and hardship of her family in those words.

Despite a warm welcome, Zugdidi was not their home. The family returned to Gali and started life anew in a war-torn village. Ilona lived in Gali until at the age of 18 she married a boy from Zugdidi. Love and marriage did not last long, but this time Ilona opted for staying in Zugdidi with her 7-year old son.

"I graduated from a school in Gali and never after had a chance to study. Left with a disability allowance only after a divorce, we were hardly making both ends meet. Trapped in extreme poverty, I was convinced that vocational education was the right fit for me. I was never so right," says Ilona.

Yet, opportunities to study were limited for Ilona for many years. As a person with a disability, Ilona faced an additional barrier in accessing an equal and inclusive environment that left her further and further behind.

"In 2020, during the pandemic, I got enrolled in the decorative gardening course at the Zugdidi vocational education college. On the first day I was looking for a class for people like me. You should have seen my face when I joined the ‘ordinary’ class," she laughs joyfully.

When talking about the college experience, she was particularly excited about practical classes at the Zugdidi botanical garden. The pandemic imposed some restriction, but the college was able to offer practical courses in-between massive lockdowns.

"There are plenty of girls around me, including stay-at-home moms, who dream of studying and working. Accessible, free courses cannot be a better option for moms like me. I am very grateful for this opportunity and the confidence vocational education built in me."

Ilona is now preparing for final exams. Soon she will be a skillful garden decorator with a diploma and the opportunity to start a business on her own.

In 2013, the Swiss cooperation launched, in partnership with the Georgian government and UNDP, the vocational education and training project to contribute to the reduction of extreme poverty and lingering unemployment, especially in rural areas, by offering diverse and practice-based vocational education to youth and extension services to farmers. Since the start of the project, almost 70% of trainees report active use of the skills gained during the training and on average, 60% of farmers report productivity increase thanks to improved skills.

In 2022, Switzerland will continue to finance the project for 3 more years aiming at further strengthening the capacities of institutions responsible for agriculture VET and consultancy services for farmers to ensure that these services are continuously provided to rural population in Georgia.