By Jennifer Brookland

Authorities in Azerbaijan are taking violence against women seriously. They’ve signed on to international treaties, passed laws against workplace discrimination, and written equal rights into the constitution. But without robust enforcement and public awareness, this legislation is often only powerful on paper.

“We have adopted the law on domestic violence but the law does not work,” says Parliament member Fazil Mustafa.

Annagi Hajibeyli, head of the Azerbaijani Lawyers Association, countered, saying: “Having a bad law is better than not having any law at all.”

The two exchanged their perspectives during a roundtable discussion held on Nov. 26 as part of the international 16 days of activism against gender violence campaign.

The attendees—86 representatives of civil society organizations and government agencies, youth, lawyers, and members of Parliament—conferred about the underlying societal causes of violence against women, and how to stop it.

The nongovernmental organizations that sponsored the roundtable—Clean World and Citizens’ Labor Rights Protection League—are part of a coalition that Counterpart International has supported since March 2012 as part of the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded Women’s Participation Project.

The project provides technical and financial support to the local NGOs, which implement issue-based public awareness campaigns, advocate for gender equality, increase women’s influence in decision-making processes, and build women’s leadership skills.

The roundtable is part of a larger series of activities implemented by the coalition designed to raise awareness and stir public debate on the issue of domestic violence.

The government of Azerbaijan supports the national fight against gender-based violence and has a new agency responsible for implementing the country’s gender policies; Mehriban Asgerova represented the State Committee on Family, Women and Children Affairs at the roundtable and expressed the agency’s commitment to addressing the problem.

Asgerova believed the existing law on domestic violence would be more effective if police officers were aware of it.

Participants suggested other measures that might help, such as establishing family courts that could address domestic violence through mediation, and supporting women’s economic and educational rights in general.

Many in Azerbaijan hold conservative values that translate into social exclusion for women and underrepresentation in politics and commerce.

Roundtable participants pinned white ribbons to their chests signifying their protest against gender-based violence and solidarity with the victims. The event also featured a visually graphic mob where young men carrying bloodied axes played out chasing young women.

There were 1,782 registered criminal cases linked to domestic violence last year, almost three quarters of which involved beatings, according to Mehriban Zeynalova, Clean World’s Chairperson.

Unfortunately the trend appears to be continuing: during the first six months of 2012, 790 women suffered from domestic violence, and 38 were killed.

With domestic violence often considered a private matter and not reported to authorities, the true number is likely higher.

“I think that men’s behavior toward women is the measurement of the society,” said Zahid Oruj, one of the male lawmakers present at the discussion. “A man who violates a woman is a weak man.”

The organizers concluded the event by awarding certificates of appreciation featuring white ribbons to public activists who have taken action against gender based violence.


Reporting was contributed by Altinay Kuchukeeva