UNFPA: Supporting Gender Equality in Azerbaijan
What's the situation?
In Azerbaijan, which until 1991 was part of the Soviet Union, the transition from a communist system to independence has brought far greater political and social freedoms but has also eroded the status of women.
In Soviet times, both women and men in Azerbaijan achieved high levels of education and could hold jobs at many levels of their country's economy and government.
Since Independence, however, a number of patriarchal traditions and cultural assumptions about gender roles have re-emerged.
Many families and communities feel less financially secure. When ties with the former Soviet Union were disrupted, Azerbaijan entered a period of economic decline and political instability. The situation was exacerbated by the Nogorno-Karabakh conflict and the displacement of 800,000 people. Even today, 10 per cent of Azerbaijan's population of 8,26 million are people who have been displaced from their homes.
Together, these cultural, social and economic factors have created a gender imbalance and pose new risks for women's reproductive health and their human and reproductive rights . Gender-based violence which was not discussed or investigated during Soviet times, is at disturbing levels.
Fewer jobs, less pay, less political representation
In post-Soviet Azerbaijan, women are more likely to be unemployed, paid less than men , and discriminated against in the workplace. Many of the only jobs available to women are undesirable low-waged or temporary jobs under difficult or dangerous working conditions. Women also appear to have benefited less from privatization of state assets after independence with only seven per cent of the total number of small enterprises registered to women owners.
Because much of the male workforce migrates seasonally to the capital, Baku, or abroad, more and more households are headed by women. Yet the increase of responsibilities has not led to an increase in status. There is still a widely held view among both men and women in Azerbaijan that women should not work outside the home and that men should be the main breadwinners.
Empowering women in Azerbaijan to redress this imbalance while taking cultural sensitivities into account will be a major challenge. The trend of male preference starts at birth and runs through education into public life. With the end of the Soviet "quota" system, which artificially ensured a proportion of women in political and administrative roles, the number of Azeri women in elected office has dropped since independence. There are now 14 women members of parliament out of a total of 125. Even in bodies where women are represented, such as city councils, they are rarely in leadership roles.
Although few women are involved in decision-making is still low, there have been some improvements since 1998. Fourteen per cent of judges in Azerbaijan are women. The first National Ombudsman, appointed by Parliament in 2002, is also a woman.
In the last municipal elections held on December 17, 2004, women candidates represented five per cent of those standing, and 4.08 per cent of those elected.
Azerbaijan's broadcast and print media are dominated by men, particularly at editorial and ownership level and coverage of gender issues is limited.
The challenge of Azerbaijan's cultural traditions
With its worldwide experience of using a culturally sensitive approach , UNFPA recognises that a widely-held attachment to what is often referred to as "Azerbaijani culture" has made the challenge of overcoming these inequalities more complex.
One aspect of this cultural perspective is a strongly-felt need to protect a girl or woman's reputation. Families throughout Azerbaijan, and especially outside the capital, often impede wives and daughters from having equal access to education, work and travel . In some areas where a higher education institute has closed, families often prefer to end a girl's education rather than allow her to travel to the next nearest school or college.
In many cases such a decision may be prompted by poverty. A family with financial difficulties may feel forced to choose which children should be educated and the choice often favours sons rather than daughters. But this can bring further problems. Girls without education find it harder to compete for better-paid jobs and may end up having to enter an early marriage for financial security for themselves and their families.
This is not a simple male/female issue. Mothers and mothers-in-law play a major role in enforcing restrictions on women and a sophisticated approach is needed in order to make people aware of the negative effects of these patriarchal perceptions on families and communities.
Azerbaijan does have a fairly good legal framework for equal rights .
However, the lack of enforcement mechanisms and strong patriarchal traditions mean the vision of equal rights in the constitution does not become a reality for many women. Despite the high profile presence of women in some human rights NGOs, many women in Azerbaijan do not even know their rights as they relate to their everyday lives.
Violence against women
Disturbingly, gender-based violence in Azerbaijan has reached epidemic proportions. Although the Constitution of Azerbaijan, national legislation and the international treaties guarantee protection of women from violence, these documents are not always applied in practice. New laws, policies and public attitudes need to be developed if this is going to change.
As many as 38 per cent of Azerbaijan women are estimated to suffer physical violence from a family member. But because domestic violence is widely accepted by both men and women, and family unity is traditionally strong, the issue is rarely discussed. Surveys also indicate that there is little understanding of the concept or definition of domestic violence and that even women's groups do not consider it a priority.
Victims of this kind of violence have few places to turn. Azerbaijan has only one crisis centre in Baku. Because doctors are supposed to report injuries to the police, victims will often choose not to reveal the real cause. Social attitudes towards rape is also problematic, because of gender norms and because the potential for police corruption means that prosecution is unlikely.
Trafficking in human beings is a relatively new problem in Azerbaijan. Although it is difficult to obtain accurate statistics, what evidence is available suggests that it is increasing although it would appear that Azerbaijan is currently favored more as a transit country by traffickers.
In May 2004 a National Plan on Combating Trafficking in people was adopted by Presidential degree in order to protect and defend the victims of trafficking, to help them become rehabilitated and reintegrated into society and to make amendments to national legislation.
The gender imbalance in Azerbaijan has a considerable impact on health, with reproductive health, maternal and infant mortality of particular concern.
In Azerbaijan, reproductive health indicators are conflicting. According to the 2000 multiple indicators cluster survey, maternal mortality rates (MMR) are notably higher than those reported by official statistics. The survey indicated that the MMR is 76 deaths per 100,000 live births (as opposed to 23.8 according to official statistics).
Abortion is still commonly used as birth control and in contrast to a number of neighboring countries this practice seems to be increasing. Abortions often lead to serious complications, including infertility and reproductive tract infections.
There are also disturbing population statistics which suggest that the use of sex-selective abortion and male preference in health care are a problem. In the category of 0-4 years old, there are 10% more boys than girls (38,000 "missing" girls) and the total difference for all categories 0-19 years old (when the numbers equalize) is 110,000 fewer girls (Azerbaijan State Statistics 2002).
Another issue of concern is an increase in the number of cases of sexually transmitted infections (STIs ). Many of Azerbaijan's migrant labor force work in countries such as Russia, which has a very high rate of STI infection and those who have unprotected sex while they are away risk spreading these infections on their return home.
Research by Baku municipality in 1999 revealed that nearly one quarter of prostitutes detained in 1999 have STIs. Despite the growing risk of infection, there is little awareness of STIs among Azerbaijani women and many do not take the issue seriously. The fact that sex education is practically non-existent in the schools adds to the problem. In time, this could fuel an HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Another major health concern is the increase in cervical cancer, particularly in women over 40. Awareness of cervical caner and of the availability of screening is very low.
The risks of early marriage and blood-related marriage
In times of financial difficulty, young women in Azerbaijan can be disadvantaged not only because of educational preferences given to boys, but also because they can be pressured into early marriages . This can be problematic because of health issues associated with early pregnancy, the loss of educational opportunities and a lack of legal protection in case of marital problems.
Another practice in Azerbaijan which can be harmful to women is marriage between cousins.
Reproductive health professionals have expressed great concern about the health implications for children conceived in cousin marriages, and noted the high incidence of birth defects. As a rule, the family control is stronger in these marriages, the benefits accruing to the husband who can threaten total isolation to the bride should she try to challenge or leave a bad situation.
The male perspective
Male involvement in all aspects of reproductive health and domestic life is low. In Azerbaijani culture, a new wife is usually expected to have the first child within a year of marriage. According to sociological reports suggest that Azerbaijan men rarely share responsibility for child-rearing or caring for elderly relatives.
According to official statistics, life expectancy for men is 68.6 years and for women 75.2 years - a 6.6-year gender gap. However, other estimates show the gap as 6.9 or even 8.6 years. Other health statistics show that men disproportionately suffer from trauma, suicide, alcoholism, and drug abuse - related to unhealthy lifestyle choices. It is widely believed that that men have done psychologically worse in the last decade of transition because they are conditioned by society to be less flexible than women and because of the loss of Nogorno-Karabakh.
Lack of data on population and development
One of the obstacles to assessing gender and health issues in Azerbaijan is a lack of reliable data for development
A reproductive health survey conducted by USAID, UNAIDS and UNFPA in 2001 offers some insights, but unfortunately only includes women. In order to understand patterns of sexual activity and possible STI transmission, it would have been useful to request and analyze the same information from men.
The 2003 State Programme of Poverty Reduction and Economic Development (SPPRED) included some useful preliminary gender analysis, but more needs to be done before gender patterns in poverty can be analyzed more effectively.