Several hundreds of men and women took to the streets in Tbilisi for the global Women’s March on January 21. Protesters held up signs demanding equality, inclusion and tolerance – the turnout was not only impressive, but inspiring.
Unfortunately, a mere 100 kilometers across the border into Azerbaijan, women’s rights activists are less fortunate.
Looking at numbers from 2013, the now, no-longer operating gender-az.org directory listed 124 women’s organizations, including 69 other NGOs working on women’s issues.
However, a number of Azerbaijani activists believe that these organizations are not critical enough when it comes to societal problems or government policies when it comes to women’s rights.
“Sure, there are several NGO’s which are currently working on women’s rights”, Javid Nabiyev, an LGBT Human Rights Defender currently seeking political asylum in Germany, tells Meydan TV, “but the point is that these organizations’ interests are based on the interest of the Azerbaijani, dictatorial government”.
Even more disturbing is the fact that organizations that formerly worked on gender issues have dismantled their websites, left not a trace of themselves on Facebook and the activists who advocate for women’s rights are unwilling to talk to the media, fearing repercussions even if they are not mentioned by name.
“Due to the sensitivity of the topic and ‘internal’ rules, we do not provide any information to the media. Sorry, I can’t help you”, one women’s rights activist told Meydan TV.
One international organization working on women’s rights in the region said they had to pull out their projects in order to protect the few activists in Azerbaijan that work on the issue.
“Any attempts at engaging local civil society may put them at risk, all public spaces are blocked and organizations have to operate underground”, a representative of this organization commented to Meydan TV.
Nabiyev says the Azerbaijani government targets any organization working on human rights issues, but that women’s rights activists have the additional burden of facing a particularly ferocious threat from within society itself.
“Patriarchal values are waiting to lynch you, to blame you, and discriminate against you,” Nabiyev explains, adding that “the authorities are able to use this social prejudice as a tool” against organizations and activists.
Although Azerbaijani officials state the number of domestic violence cases have fallen
from 4,696 in 2009 to 2,248 in 2015
, women right’s activists are sceptical about the numbers.
According to the UN
, a total of 83 women were murdered at home in Azerbaijan in 2013 alone, while those experiencing physical or sexual violence 18% had suicidal thoughts and 8% attempted suicide.
“One of these murders was that of Narmina Valiyeva, a 15-year-old who died after she ran away from home, only for police to bring her back there instead of referring her to social services as a vulnerable minor”, the
UN report states
The government has adopted several different laws in the past few years to battle domestic violence, but the
that societal stereotypes and corruption still protect the perpetrators.
The Azerbaijani government on its part believes it is doing well in protecting the rights of women. The constitution adopted in 1995 designates women and men as equals in the process of democratic state-building. But less than 20% of the governing body is female, including only one (!) female minister.
With regards to labor rights, the situation is similar.
study by the University of Amsterdam
reveals that more men than women work, that only 0.9% of women employ others (entrepreneurs) compared to 5% of men, and that the majority of women are employed in so-called elementary occupations, such as wholesale and retail trade.
The dire situation begs for action, but movements are afraid to work openly due to repercussions.
A prime example is the banning of the Women Crisis Center in 2014 by the government. The NGO came under investigation of the government after supposedly linking Matanat Azizova, the head of the organization, to Rauf Mirqadirov – a journalist arrested on fabricated espionage charges. Azizova fled the country immediately, currently running the Women’s Crisis Center in exile.
“It’s doesn’t matter if your work focused on labor rights, women rights, gender or LGBT rights. You will become a target of the authorities”, Nabiyev told Meydan TV.
And not only.
Heinrich Boll Foundation study
from 2011 reveals that several of the listed organizations “have a limited understanding of the gender equality principles or declare an adherence to the traditional family values as part of their agenda”, which neither improves the rights nor advances the position of women in Azerbaijan.
In addition to these issues, trust in women’s rights organizations of women themselves is at an all time low as well.
“Women in Azerbaijan are not likely to perceive women’s organizations as representatives of their interests or as women’s rights advocates”, the Henrich Boll Foundation report states.
The 2010 report by the Public Union for Gender Equality and Women’s Initiatives, “Gender Mainstreaming: The Role of Civil Society. Results of Monitoring the National Gender Mechanism”, states that only 10.4% women said if their rights were to be violated they would go to an NGO for support.
The failure to gain trust from women could be the result of the organizations’ and activists’ inability to conduct any outreach, due to lingering government pressure and societal disagreement.
In a country which prides itself on having the first female pilot to fly solo from Southern Europe to Central Asia in 1931; and for being, in 1918, the first Muslim-majority country ever to give women voting rights, it is sad to note that women’s rights organizations in the country are unable to do the work most needed.
Nabiyev is pessimistic about whether the situation will change.
“Women’s Rights is one of the most sensitive topics in Azerbaijan, as society is embedded in patriarchal taboos based on social and religious values”.
And social, cultural, and religious values are some of the most difficult to change.