Women Doing Business in Azerbaijan

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BY KELLY CHAIB DE MARES

AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER

Since the country gained its independence, the economy of Azerbaijan has been defined by two energy-related major events. Achieving political stability in the nineties, the government signed important deals with international energy producers that allowed the country a steady, upward growth with progressive developments.

Azerbaijan’s economic growth has slowed since the second half of 2015, as a result of weak regional growth, the devaluation of the national currency, the reduction of capital investments and the continued fall in oil prices; a situation that might affect the welfare of the population. To face this situation, the Government of Azerbaijan is carrying out structural reforms to reduce its dependence on the oil sector, and strengthen industry, agriculture, metallurgy, and tourism, as reported by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in his Strategy for Azerbaijan 2019 – 2024.

Taking into consideration the evidence displayed by the Women’s Empowerment Principles regarding the effect of gender equality as a multiplier effect on families, communities, businesses and a sustainable economy, it would be worth analyzing how the Azerbaijani society is overcoming the current economic climate, by empowering their women.

In the words of Mr. Niyazi Safarov, Azerbaijan’s Deputy Economy Minister, at the event dedicated to women’s social entrepreneurship this year in Baku, “Azerbaijan pursues economic policy which prioritizes the development of entrepreneurship in the country and especially gives support to women’s social entrepreneurship.”

Currently, Azerbaijan’s Economy Ministry presents among its figures that of the total population employed in the country, 48.2% are women with active participation in the socio-economic life of the country; of the total of entrepreneurs, 20% are women. More than 143,000 women are engaged in business in Azerbaijan.

The National report submitted to the United Nations in the first trimester of 2018, in the framework of the Universal Periodic Review, presents the campaign to strengthen the role of women in social development, lead by the State Committee on the Family, Women and Children; the Agency for the Development of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs), and the Economy Ministry, with the support of the international community: the United States Agency for International Development, the United Nations Population Fund, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Development Program, and Counterpart International.

As part of this strategy, implemented in 2016, the State Committee on the Family, Women and Children and the Azerbaijan Micro-finance Association have held special training courses for women on financial literacy. The Entrepreneurship Development Fund of the Economy Ministry issued preferential loans worth 109.1 million manats (USD 63.99 million) to more than 4,200 women entrepreneurs. The Department of State Employment Service under the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of Population granted financial support from the self-employment program to more than 1,000 women entrepreneurs in 2018.

Considering the potential of agricultural products through the value chain, a couple of years ago the Government of Azerbaijan founded: Agro Procurement and Supply, an open Joint Stock Company under the Ministry of Agriculture. This Entity is pivotal in the non-oil sector development, with the aims of promoting and supporting the agricultural sector and providing centralized procurement of foodstuffs by state order.

This new Entity has designed the project, ‘Azerbaijani Women in Agriculture’ (AFAQ for its acronym in Azeri) to be implemented in 2020 – 2022, with a budget of 1.000.000 manats (USD 600.000 approx.) in order to support 200 women agro-entrepreneurs, implementing groups of women farmers and small production centers. Although they won´t work in the most conservative regions in Azerbaijan, they will stimulate women already working in agriculture to develop their entrepreneurship and business administration skills.

Baroness Nicholson at the afternoon tea with Azerbaijan Business Women

The World Economic Forum published on December 17, 2018, The Global Gender Gap Report 2018 with an analysis of 147 states, ranking Azerbaijan in 47th place with a score of 0.716/1 in the sub-index of Economic Participation and Opportunity for women. That means that the gap in Azerbaijan is below the world average in labor force participation; earned income; gender of managers; gender of professional and technical workers; and in wage equality for similar work. However, in the global index, Azerbaijan is ranking in position 97 due to the low-performance on Health and Survival, recording some of the lowest female-to-male sex ratios at birth in the world.

Nevertheless, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women noted in the Universal Periodic Review, is aware of the deeply rooted patriarchal attitudes and stereotypes regarding the roles and responsibilities of women and men in the family and in society, therefore urging Azerbaijan to raise awareness of existing sex-based stereotypes with a view to eliminating them. The committee also explains that despite the legislative guarantees of gender equality, the prevalence of discriminatory attitudes and customary practices was seriously impeding the advancement of women.

It is remarkable the important effort the Azerbaijani society is having on women, combating those stereotypes and patriarchal attitudes, visualizing women role models and strengthening their networks. A great example is the work that Tatyana Mikailova executes at the Foundation ‘100 Business Women of Azerbaijan.’ The Foundation creates a space where women and girls develop themselves; bring role models to the community; unifies female business owners and top-level corporate executives for supporting; and generates synergy, as the most powerful tool to empower, support and inspire women.

International Non-Governmental Organizations are also working in the same direction. Counterpart International Azerbaijan implemented the project, ‘Women´s Participation’ in Azerbaijan eight years ago, with the leadership of Ilgar Agasibeyli, an Azerbaijani man working on gender issues for more than 15 years. This program promotes gender equality and empowers women to become confident and capable leaders – whether in their government, workplace, community, or family.

The project is building e-commerce capacity in the border regions of Azerbaijan, giving to the younger generation the possibility of being productive in society. The main message that Mr. Agasibeyli brings to women is the possibility of developing their skills, without the necessity of being sponsored by a man or a rich family.

Those role models do exist in Azerbaijan, and not only in the capital. Sumgait, saw the birth of an outstanding start-up: Sara Rajabli, a 23-year-old woman, who after being a Young European Ambassador from Azerbaijan and a travel blogger, launched the first Azerbaijani social enterprise, BUTA Art and Sweets. It is an online platform that sells traditional handmade desserts made from women with special needs. Mrs. Rajabli is changing not only minds but also family structures for the empowerment of women.

Because people want to help, Sara has received the support of the community. Her main obstacle is the lack of regulation in the country for businesses with a social approach. In just two years, the enterprise now employs around 30 people; has more than 20 corporate partners which regularly order pastries for their national and international events; has been awarded in the first-time nomination of social entrepreneurship in the conference “Government is The Best Partner of Entrepreneur” by the Economy Ministry, the Small and Medium Business Development Agency and the National Confederation of Entrepreneurs (Employers’) Organizations; and has been awarded by the President of Azerbaijan.

Although there are many steps that Azerbaijani women have taken in the search for gender equality in opportunities such as economic participation, there is still a path to follow. Counterpart International has identified that only 17% of women hold decision-making positions in national parliaments; due to the lack of training and experience needed to feel confident as leaders. In the same way, the United Nations Development Program has recognized there are gender-specific obstacles to greater women participation and inclusion:

  • Marginalization of women and girls in the family and community-based decision-making.
  • Domestic violence and coercive control.
  • Rigid gender-based distribution of family duties and responsibilities.
  • Early marriage and school dropouts.
  • Weak links between local women entrepreneurs and financial institutions and absence of gender-sensitive financial service’s targeting women entrepreneurs.
  • Lack of networking and capacity building opportunities available for women and girls.
  • Gender-neutral corporate policies in the private sector.

The high number of domestic and sexual violence cases in Azerbaijan is a major concern and the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, in the Universal Periodic Review raised concerns regarding the lack of implementation of the Law on the Prevention of Domestic Violence. Last October the media in Azerbaijan witnessed society’s outrage at the recent acts of domestic violence. During the first week of the month several women had been killed or severely beaten both by their husbands and other family members, but what triggered the protest was the woman was stabbed by her husband in front of her three children and passers-by in Baku.

In conclusion, it is true that Azerbaijan is making progress by closing the economical gap in gender equality. The country has thousands of female role models and success stories; however, the development is not always possible without protecting the life and the personal integrity of the women. If this specific group is not guaranteed in its first-generation human rights, it is almost not worth talking about Economic Participation, Educational Attainment and Political Empowerment.