Empowering Azerbaijani Women

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BY KELLY CHAIB DE MARES

AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER

Azerbaijan is proud to provide an empowering environment for women in the Islamic world. Since 1908, an anti-veil movement started, a prominent statue in central Baku honors the bravery and will power of women who abandoned the veil. As it is publicly known, during its short independence period from 1918 – 1920, the democratic and secular republic became the first Muslim majority country to grant the right of suffrage to its female population. Afterwards, the Soviet Union witnessed the opening of the Ali Bayramov Club, the first Azerbaijani club that advocated women emancipation through their vocational skills training and leisure activities.

As the progressive woman and language teacher, Narmin Khalilova remembers, the land of fire has allowed the development of renowned women, such as: Leyla Mammadbekova (1909-1989) the first female pilot of Azerbaijan, Transcaucasia, Southern Europe and Middle East; Agabadji Rzayeva (1912-1975), composer of the beloved children’s song “Kukla” (Doll), one of the unique masterpieces in the national musical treasure; and Zuleykha Gabibovna Seidmamedova (1919-1994), first Azerbaijani military fighter pilot, who took part in the Second World War.

Azerbaijan nowadays showcases visibly empowered women who inspire younger generations, starting with the First Vice President, Mehriban Aliyeva. Only in the Azerbaijan Business Women Organization, are there 150 members in senior positions in renowned companies that congregate in this platform to share, learn, and advance world economies. Yet, most women feel that such roles are impossible to achieve and that empowered Azerbaijani women are so because they have the backing of wealthy families.

After the second independence, Azerbaijan has endeavored to create a socio-economic environment in which its population, including its women, can develop. The country progressed in universal primary education and life expectancy; eliminated extreme poverty, and declined the percentage of absolute poverty, and moved up from medium human development group to high human development group. High literacy rates for both men and women pave the way to work towards eliminating gender segregation in the institutions of higher education and across different employment sectors.

However, this economic growth derives benefits on a different scale according to the gender. Azerbaijani society should persist in their efforts to continue empowering their women. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in its concluding observations on the Fifth Periodic Report of Azerbaijan, reveals the specific challenges faced by Azerbaijani society to achieve gender equality. In the family and in society remain deeply rooted patriarchal attitudes and stereotypes regarding the dominant position of men and undermine women’s social status, their equal participation in public life and their concentration in low paid and informal jobs.

Women and girls also face different forms of gender-based violence, where many cases continue to go unreported due the social stigma and the practice of attributing fault to women survivors of violence. UNFPA estimated that approximately one in three women report experiencing physical violence by intimate partners in their lifetime. Challenges remain in other key indicators for maternal and infant health, such as access to contraceptives. Adolescent birth rate has increased in tandem with decreasing levels of female secondary school completion. Of course, these   problems are exasperated in disadvantaged and marginalized groups of women, including rural women, women with disabilities, internally displaced and refugee women.

Currently, the government of Azerbaijan, along with its civil society and international donors, continue to develop initiatives for addressing many of the above-mentioned issues to further advance gender equality. In the framework of the Constitution, the State guarantees equality among women and men. Azerbaijan has also signed international agreements, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Optional Protocol, the International Labour Organization Convention concerning Equal Opportunities and Equal Treatment for Men and Women Workers, and the revised Maternity Protection Convention.

The country´s legal foundation of gender equality was enhanced in 2006 with the adoption of the Law on State Guarantees of Equal Rights for Women and Men, and last year with the endorsement of the National Action Plan for Addressing Domestic Violence and the National Action Plan for Addressing the Phenomenon of Son Preference and Undervaluing of Girls. A high-level committee has been set up to oversee the law’s implementation: The State Committee on Family, Woman and Children Affairs, which manages eleven Regional Children and Families Support Centers, and nine Women Resource Centers.

The aforementioned efforts are already having a remarkable effect in Azerbaijan; the configuration of the Milli Majlis (National Assembly) elected in 2020, with 22 out of 125 seats, has reached the highest female representation in Azerbaijani history. Last year also marked a milestone with the selection for the first time of a woman speaker, Sahiba Qafarova, “bringing a special sort of soft power and a modern open climate to the Parliament [and] an important message both domestically and internationally of where the country stands and where it goes”, as MP Nigar Arpadarai, one of the women role models for Azerbaijani youth, attest in an exclusive interview for Azeri Observer Magazine.

Nigar Arpadarai is a marketing and communications/PR professional, who, impacted with the new dynamics in politics that are contributing to the country´s modernization, decided to participate independently at the 2020 Azerbaijani parliamentary election, endorsing, among others, issues of social nature, such an employment, social protection of vulnerable groups, including children. Arpadarai serves in the Committee on Family, Women and Children in the National Parliament, from where she can develop her role promoting “the female power, through education and enlightenment, through professional growth and respect to traditions and values”.

Arpadarai recognizes that although as per Azerbaijan’s laws women and men are equal, it does not necessarily mean that women have equal opportunities when it comes to career building, education or business. As the data from the Asian Development Bank shows in the Country Gender Assessment 2019, women’s share in the labor force is 48.1%, however, their contribution to GDP is just 27%, which is evidence proving the high gender segregation in the low-paid sectors of education, health and social services. Overall, they earn only 50.6% of what men earn in the labor market, and are underrepresented as business owners with only 21.5% of registered businesses being operated by women.

Even though “Azerbaijan has to go a very long road, things are getting better, voices of women are being heard and are more vocal than before”, Nigar Arpadarai asserts. She is convinced that positive discrimination with measures such as administrative or legislative quotas can only serve as a supplementary tool, the way to achieve real equality, and not a superficial or formal one, is education for women, and enlightenment for men accepting and embracing it.  

To provide this real and substantive guarantees of gender equality, it is necessary to promote women’s empowerment through: (i) defeating cultural, social, and economic barriers to exercise their right to live free of violence and take steps to remove themselves, and their children, from such situations, (ii) expanding perceptions of the range of occupational choices available to women, (iii) improving parental leave provisions, and (iv) having measures for better work–family balance to facilitate women’s entry into non-traditional or progressively senior career paths.

In order to support national institutional mechanisms and capacities to achieve the above-mentioned conditions, the European Union invested in the three-year project “Gender Equality: Together Against Gender Stereotypes and Gender-Based Violence”, which is being implemented by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and UN Women. This program seeks to shift perceptions around gender stereotypes and the role of women and men in the family; improve men’s involvement in the household, caretaking responsibilities and promoting active fatherhood; and provide guidance and technical assistance to programs preventing violence against women.

Head of the UNFPA’s Country Office in Azerbaijan, Farid Babayev, told Azeri Observer, “This program is about turning a curve and contributing to gender transformation in Azerbaijan which is a very long and complex journey given the interplay of different factors that lead to perpetuation of gender inequality”. As examples, Babayev mentioned the research held by UNFPA in close partnership with government stakeholders, that proved gender inequalities constitute major root causes behind the phenomenon of son preference leading to a heavily distorted sex ratio in Azerbaijan (114 boys/100 girls vs a biological norm of 105-106 boys/100 girls); as well as – throughout their lifetime – women and girls also face different forms of gender-based violence that stem from gender inequality in power and resources. 

Nevertheless, Mr. Babayev agrees with MP Arpadarai in acknowledging the progress made by Azerbaijan ensuring adequate protection and promotion of women’s human rights. “The country has a good legal basis for promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment. We can see that women are now more likely to marry at an older age, have fewer children, and they have nearly equal chances of residing in either rural or urban areas,” said Farid Babayev, praising the efforts of the Azerbaijani Government to address inequalities faced by women and girls.

The relevance of this project has been boosted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Babayev highlighted that “distribution of care work is one of today’s most significant challenges for gender equality and the burden of unpaid work on women has increased dramatically during the pandemic”. This is the reason why, through the program, they are leveraging synergies working with diverse stakeholders and beneficiaries including young men, to accelerate change by using innovative approaches and embracing positive masculinities.

Implementing the project, UNFPA has faced the lack of strong civil society actors engaged in gender equality encouragement in the country. Considering that a truly gender transformative programming requires strong grass-roots advocacy, Babayev explained how the project has involved new allies to diversify information and communication channels for promoting equal distribution of responsibilities. Specifically, UNFPA is collaborating with two emerging feminist groups: Gender Talks and Gender Hub, confirming that investment into locally produced content has extensive public outreach and contributes to the efforts’ sustainability beyond the project’s lifetime.

Among other innovative strategies, the project organized the first ever Gender Equality Hackathon that brought together like-minded young women and men to search for new effective solutions to traditional harmful practices, including gender-based violence and child marriages. As a result, the program developed interesting ideas for further enhancement, such as fun ways of learning about gender equality, and strategies for overcoming the mobile applications that provide temporary housing to gender-based violence survivors. Farid Babayev also described the strategy “My Father Loves Me”, a community-based awareness-raising campaign aimed at the elimination of deeply entrenched gender stereotypes, designed on the concept of responsible fatherhood.

Besides these national and multilateral strategies, there are incipient women´s initiatives associations working on economic empowerment. It is the case of Azerbaijan Rural Women’s Association (ARWA), an organization established in 2018 to support the social and economic development of rural women. The association was created within a donor-funded project by the World Bank and Government of Azerbaijan, to pilot an innovative model to empower women in rural areas that proved to be successful in India.

Even though the project was completed in 2019, ARWA continue to operate as a support center whose role is to create, develop and coordinate Women’s Development and Enterprise Groups in rural areas. These are groups of 10-20 women from a community who come together to collectively save every week to raise the seed funds to start their enterprises. Once the groups begin operating, the Association includes them in the capacity building programs, and provides them with access to the network; peer learning and sharing, financial literacy, business and life skills training.

Ms. Gulbaniz Ganbarova, Chairperson of ARWA, explained to Azeri Observer how the Association has been able to develop a portfolio of women owned and led businesses in 22 districts of Azerbaijan. Currently there are 44 groups with 600 women members who own and manage a total of 136 very diverse businesses, including baking and catering, cafes, tailoring, carpet weaving workshops, farming and agribusinesses.

According to Ganbarova, the mobilization of groups is the best way to challenge stereotypes. Women organized with their peers feel empowered, while the families and the community embrace the new role they play in society. Actually, the groups enable the women to be part of the decision making for addressing the problems that most affect their environment. Ms. Ganbarova has dozens of stories on the actions taken by the groups in their communities, such as solid waste management; clean-up campaigns; care for elderly and disabled people; water consumption reduction; and early marriages´ decline facing the religious authority.

Sadly, these important advances were held back with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the closing of many roads, many women-led companies no longer had access to their traditional markets, and some of the groups, especially the vegetable growers, suffered huge losses. According to the Chairwoman, the pandemic also impacted the ARWA´s structure, forcing all operations online. Nevertheless, they took the opportunity to learn in a short period of time how to use Digital tools; with an unexpected bonus that the Association and the members within the groups communicate more than ever before.

Ganbarova also advises us that institutional barriers to gain credit access is one of the main difficulties ARWA´s members face in order to develop their enterprises, a situation that the Association is trying to raise before the Government of Azerbaijan. Other initiatives the Association is advocating for, are subsidies for women farmers, and the inclusion of woman’s committees is part of the preparation of the Ministry of Agriculture program for women empowerment, and the creation of a Women’s Rural Forum.

Nowadays, ARWA has been selected as one of the beneficiaries of the Women in Associations Component of the USAID Private Sector Activity, oriented towards strengthening women-focused, women-led business and professional associations, to increase the access of women entrepreneurs and business owners to market information, markets, digital and business development services, access to finance, networks, mentorship, and other resources that will enable them to overcome the obstacles of starting and/or growing firms.

In the Quarterly Progress Report of the USAID´s Private Sector Activity, January-March 2021, the implementer CNFA describes eight formal women’s organizations and mainstream organizations with a strong component on women’s empowerment, and seven informal women’s groups to participate in their capacity development program. Then, the document presents an interesting mapping of private associations empowering women.

Evidently, Azerbaijan has steadily advanced in gender equality as it pursues its aim to become a highly developed country. Altogether with the legislative framework and the political will, numerous public and private strategies are being implemented to empower women. Still, it is a work in progress that requires continuous efforts from all stakeholders to address the remaining gaps in Azerbaijani society.