By Rebecca Giovannozzi

Women in Azerbaijan, as in other former Soviet states, continue to face cultural barriers and developmental challenges despite overall positive economic and social development growth across the country. Counterpart International has supported women activists in their journey to developing greater skills and networks to pursue gender sensitive reforms.

Since independence, Azerbaijan has quietly emerged as a middle-income country, relying on high oil prices and economic privatization. Despite steady progress towards reaching various social development indicators and publicly committing to various human rights conventions, protecting women’s rights in Azerbaijan remains a challenge. For women in Azerbaijan, the fight for gender equality continues to be a struggle, with gatekeepers making entrance to political participation and the private sector difficult. In addition, longstanding cultural norms of early marriage and gender-based violence prevail. For civil society actors, advocacy and progress in such arenas is a challenge in the restrictive environment maintained and constantly tightened by the Azerbaijani state.

In an effort to increase civil society’s ability to champion gender-responsive reforms in Azerbaijan’s restrictive environment, and to increase women’s ability to engage and lead in political participation, Counterpart International implemented the USAID-funded Women’s Participation Program (WPP) from September 2011 until November 2019. Throughout implementation, Counterpart learned many lessons that continue to be applicable to expanding women’s roles in society while operating in a closing civic space. Among other lessons, Counterpart has found that throughout the difficulties of supporting civil society in Azerbaijan, sustained engagement with government officials enabled Government of Azerbaijan actors to understand and eventually support the objectives of WPP. We also found that communication and technology offered new opportunities for women to further exchange peer-learning, establish enduring relationships, and forge new networking opportunities—particularly in rural areas. Continuing investments in digital activism, coupled with digital safety training, would further benefit women civil society leaders in a restrictive environment.  

Two additional key lessons learned enabled Counterpart to achieve meaningful results:

Lesson 1 – Adapting in a Challenging Operating Environment

In 2013, the Government of Azerbaijan (GOAJ), as part of its efforts to consolidate power, increased pressure on media, human rights activists, and civil society organizations (CSOs). Various measures were used, including joint criminal cases against organizations that would lead to bank account seizures, staff interrogations, and travel bans. CIVICUS currently rates Azerbaijan as a closed civic space, and the continually closing environment throughout the project made it difficult for grantees and eventually Counterpart to operate. The GOAJ targeted women-led CSOs supported by Counterpart, freezing their financial assets and their state registration.

Government hostility had long lasting impacts on WPP which, in order to continue implementation, shifted from an advocacy, rights-based program to focus exclusively on women’s economic empowerment to enable women in the workforce to become prominent stakeholders in their community. By conducting activities and cascading trainings in rural areas of Azerbaijan as well as in the capital of Baku, WPP was able to reach women throughout the country without the constraints the Azerbaijani government. Events such as the Young Women’s Leadership and Development trainings and summer schools provided an opportunity for women across the country to build their skills in various areas, including digital marketing, leadership, and e-governance. In socially conservative Azerbaijan, where early marriage and strict permissions for women are prevalent, these opportunities provided a chance to grow, despite the restrictive government.

Working in a closing civic environment also requires the use of unconventional tools and the creation of informal networks. WPP learned that participants had created WhatsApp groups to further discuss Counterpart-led trainings and to keep in contact after the conclusion of program activities. These young women expressed an interest in acquiring technical skills for their professional development. These informal networks foster pathways for economic opportunities and also as a mechanism to operate within a closed civic space that avoids government scrutiny. Informal digital networks can channel civil society activities such as advocacy, fundraising, and action. While first formed as a method to stay in touch, the participants in WPP-led trainings hold the potential for greater action.

For programs in similar challenging environments, Counterpart recommends integrating broader information, communication, and technology-based trainings that would allow women more opportunities to foster networks and further develop professional skills. Supporting civil society in learning skills including digital hygiene and how to recognize online gender-based violence can contribute to civil society’s continued ability to operate in a closed civic environment. While it may be difficult to obtain and retain registration in Azerbaijan, whether as a civil society organization or an NGO, technology can help to prop open the doors to allow Azerbaijani women and citizens to advocate for their rights and grow economically.

Lesson 2 – Foster Public and Private Sector Partnerships for Impact Sustainability

WPP closely cooperated with ASAN Centers, an Azerbaijani state agency, to provide on-the-job employee effectiveness and personal development training for a total of 80 young women employees and volunteers. The women received training on management and leadership, communication skills, relationship management skills, and personal effectiveness. In addition, WPP and ASAN supported 25 women to intern in different departments across ASAN Services based on their educational backgrounds and interests. The internship sought to equip young participants with learning and growth, ability to put new ideas into practice, build self-confidence, and improve IT literacy and other practical skills that help with career advancement. It is also an opportunity for the interns to network and showcase their skills for ultimate employment as full-time ASAN Service employees.  

The internship program proved to be a successful activity, with 22 of the 25 women receiving job offers. Participants gained on-the-job skills they otherwise would not have access to and many of the interns were later granted full-time jobs with public and private sector entities, including Coca-Cola, ZEO Holidays Tourism Agency, NIG-AZ Oil company, and Azerbaijan Senaye Bank, as well as positions in ASAN Service Centers around Azerbaijan.

In an effort to adopt a more politically informed approach, Counterpart recommends continued engagement with public service delivery institutions and opportunities to use professional development trainings to join the public or private sector. The ASAN Service Center serves to provide citizens with access to government services in Azerbaijan, and continued efforts to improve job skills enable the young women who were trained to develop their own leadership skills and career growth. Furthermore, support to ASAN Services also contributes to increased efficiency in the delivery of public services to the citizens of Azerbaijan. The skills developed through these trainings and internships also translate to non-public sector jobs. It has been demonstrated through both support mechanisms that the private sector seeks to hire employees with previous professional development experience, and increased engagement would increase the ability of young women in marginalized areas to access economic opportunities. Both pathways of engagement offer the opportunity to foster inter-state ties as well in order to exchange best practices, such as the study tours Counterpart led to Estonia that allowed the women who had participated in trainings to learn about e-governance from Estonian institutions and the private sector.

Women in Azerbaijan continue to fight for their rights against domestic violence and for economic inclusion. Recent protests in Baku brought attention to the ongoing violence against women in Azerbaijan, but as with most advocacy efforts in the country, the women were met by harsh anti-protest measures from the police. The State Committee for Family and Women’s Affairs continues to partner with organizations such as UNFPA to examine the status of gender quality in Azerbaijan, coming away with a long list of recommendations that would improve country-wide gender relations. However regardless of commitments made by the state to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women or the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the Azerbaijan state is not adequately meeting these commitments. Future work on behalf of donor countries should include bolstering civil society and individual women’s ability to hold the Azerbaijani government accountable for their perpetuation of cultural stereotypes that continue to keep women at home, out of the economy, and unable to fully engage in society.

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