Screenshot from an animation by Justice Initiative Project on “the custom of taking children away from mothers in Chechnya and Ingushetia.”  © Justice Initiative Project

This week, the European Court on Human Rights ruled that Luisa Tapayeva, a Chechen woman, should be reunited with her four daughters who were taken from her after their father died. Under local customs, children are “owned” by the father and his family.

The ruling means the world to Tapayeva and to many other women in Russia’s North Caucasus who are struggling to regain custody of or at least visit with their children. Finding Russia in violation of Tapayeva’s right to family life and the prohibition of discrimination, the Court noted that sex-based discrimination was systemic in the region. In addition to paying Tapayeva compensation and ensuring she is reunited with her children, the Russian government will now have to take concrete steps to end discrimination against women, in custody matters and beyond.

Tapayeva, her husband, and their four daughters, born in 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2013, lived with the husband’s family in Goyty, a small village in Chechnya. When her husband died, Tapayeva and the children moved to her parents’ house, in that same village. Then, in April 2016, Tapayeva’s father-in-law took the girls to his home and refused to return them, claiming they “belonged” with him.

Tapayeva lost access to her daughters. Her in-laws would not let her see or communicate with them. For years, she fought a legal battle and, increasingly desperate, sought justice in Strasbourg. Lawyers from Stichting Justice Initiative, an independent group that has helped abuse victims win close to 300 cases at the European Court of Human Rights, filed the application on behalf of Tapayeva and the children.

In its ruling, the Court notes that it had “previously examined” several similar cases from the Northern Caucasus. It further references conclusions adopted by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women urging Russia to “to modify or eliminate traditional practices and stereotypes that discriminate against women” and specifically, to “take the legislative measures necessary to eliminate the concept of ‘ownership’ of the father over his children in the northern Caucasus, and ensure equal parental rights to women in all cases.” The Court also quotes two reports by Human Rights Watch “documenting gender discrimination” in Chechnya.

The ruling speaks for itself. A pattern of discrimination is in place, and Russia needs to end it.