In 2006, Azerbaijan’s National Assembly and its 125 members pledged their full support for the European Union’s campaign to tackle all forms of violence against women in Azerbaijan. While the same year, parliament adopted the law On Guarantees of Equal Rights for Women and Men, it took them another four years to adopt the law On Prevention of Domestic Violence.
But despite the legislative changes and pledges, these laws remain largely on paper. Neither is used as a means to tackle issues of gender inequality or violence. In the meantime, hundreds of cases of gender-motivated violence and harassment go unreported. Gender equality remains an issue still waiting to be fully tackled by the necessary government institutions.
Perceptions and traditions
Azerbaijan’s attachment to societal norms and values makes it hard for women to break down the boundaries of tradition and challenge deeply embedded notions such as mentality, honour, and morality.
A woman’s worth comes with her reputation of ‘properness’, which can range from being a good and loyal daughter, with cooking and caretaker skills, to suitable marriage material. Women are little valued for their opinions and knowledge; and their impact in the community or in the country as a whole is not a priority.
While women make up more than half of the workforce in the country (according to the World Bank: 63%), they are not found in high-level or high-earning positions. For instance, none of the country’s ministers are women, with the exception of one state body, the Committee for Family, Women and Children issues, which is headed by a woman. A woman votes in the presidential elections in Azerbaijan. Photo (c) Aziz Karimov via Demotix Due to horizontal and vertical segregation, women make up the bulk of occupations in education, health, and social services. These jobs are often low-wage positions and often associated with ‘soft career’ and more ‘appropriate’ jobs. Women also make up the largest group in the unpaid household workforce.
Yet women are the most often stigmatised group of the population despite the existing legislative norms and Azerbaijan’s history of women’s emancipation – the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was one of the first countries to introduce voting rights for women in 1918.
Women are the most often stigmatised group of the population
The fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent collapse of checks and balances that were in place to ensure gender equality, and later the outbreak of war with neighbouring Armenia, followed by the subsequent economic downturn, all had an overwhelming impact on the societal position of Azerbaijani women.
Outside of the capital Baku, conditions are particularly grim. While in Baku, victims of harassment or violence have at least some places to go for shelter (which are run by local non-governmental organisations; the only government-operated shelter is for victims of trafficking), outside the capital, these facilities do not exist.
High profile cases vs. the invisible
On 5 May 2015, Aytac Babayeva was stabbed eight times in broad daylight in the centre of Baku.
She was 18 years old. Her assailant – a rejected suitor. Aytac’s case led to a public outcry, a social media campaign and wide-ranging criticism of Azerbaijan’s legislation and the government bodies deemed responsible for the lack of progress when it comes to gender equality and tackling violence against women. Aytac’s killer is currently in pre-trial detention pending further investigation and will likely receive a severe sentence.
But this is an isolated case. Were it not for the public reaction, Aytac’s murder would have gone unrecognised as in hundreds of other unreported cases. Some anecdotal evidence suggests that 75% of victims of any form of violence in Azerbaijan choose not to report it, afraid of the possibility of public shaming and prejudice in one’s local community.
75% of victims of any form of violence in Azerbaijan choose not to report it.
The black holes in existing legislation make it difficult for women to plead their case. Beating, for instance, was a criminal offence until 2012, when it was amended to an administrative offense instead. Overall, cases of violence against women are seen as administrative rather than criminal offences.
As a result, the assailants often get away with a fine, and only if the case results in murder or severe body injury does it end up in court. But even then there are no guarantees, given the corrupt nature of the judiciary process, which can see the attacker get away with just a fine.
Metanet Azizova, director of Women’s Crisis Center, an NGO working in Baku, says that although the police have become far more understanding and sympathetic to victims of violence, the absence of any female officers, as well as departments within police stations trained to deal with victims, is a major factor in women’s decisions not to report violence.
‘There is also the corruption factor. The bribes prevent the cases from getting to court. As a result, two out of three cases end up with just a fine.’
Facing up to the challenge
But there are other factors at stake too. The law on domestic violence does not provide a clear definition of how a protection order works.
‘No one knows whose responsibility it is,’ notes Azizova. ‘The police tell the victim it’s the court that’s responsible, while the court sends the victim back to the police saying it’s their job.’ The case of Aytac Babayeva is an all too tragic example of this confusion. In Azerbaijan, Azizova says, husbands, ex-husbands, partners, and ex-partners harass their female partners, whether out of jealousy or revenge for a break-up or a divorce.
In cases where women are murdered, perpetrators are often their male partners. In fact, the number of murders committed by ex-partners has drastically increased in Azerbaijan in recent years.
Today, the country’s leadership is yet to address the most common issues women in Azerbaijan face: the lack of decision-making jobs, equality, early marriages, harassment, internal family conflicts, physical and psychological abuse. Neither the law on gender equality nor the law on violence against women guarantee better rights for women.
Instead, these laws are window-dressing, at best, and Azerbaijan continues to fall behind in adopting the necessary steps and building the necessary infrastructure to ensure the successful implementation of these laws.
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