This first-person account is part of a regular series of how Counterpart works in the field. This story is by Ellen Garrett, Director, Government and Civil Society Strengthening.

Five bumpy hours after leaving Baku, we were near our destination: Azerbaijan’s second largest city and historical capital, Ganja.

Our car jostled past a massive aluminum plant on the side of the road and entered the Ganja State Agricultural University, where we would discuss gender discrimination and equal rights with college students from four local universities.

We entered a classroom with walls painted bright yellow, the flag of Azerbaijan hanging from the front.

Fifty young men and women filled the space around a U-shaped wooden table, some eager to speak with us and some looking around hesitantly.

Azerbaijan has a progressive legal frameworkon women’s issues: it affords men and women equal political rights, criminalizes domestic violence and seeks to eliminate gender-based discrimination in the workplace. It also signed the United Nations’ Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

But as our partners Dr. Maleyka Alizade, Chairman of the Ganja Regional Women’s Center Public Union, and Nushaba Mammadova, Chairman of the “TOMRIS” Women’s Society, explained to the students, there are still substantial gaps in the implementation of these laws.

Students were invited to ask questions or share their opinions, and while they were slow to speak up at the outset, a lively debate on women’s rights and their traditional position in society was raging by the end of the two hour discussion.

The first student to speak was a young man who commented on the use of quotas to ensure women’s participation.

He suggested that the idea of having a 30 percent female quota should be reviewed to see if it actually increases participation. He said that Azerbaijan is ranked around 50th internationally in women’s political participation, well behind Ireland and many other countries.

The next student to volunteer agreed:  “We are such a developed nation,” he said. “Why do we have such low levels of women participating in the political process?”

He spoke of Azerbaijan as a place that has a strong historical association with family. If you want to change perceptions, he said, you need to work with youth, including at the university level.

He recommended a series of workshops and seminars on gender at the university, and even offered to help organize such events himself.

The first woman to join the conversation chimed in, saying that historically Azerbaijani women have been active, and that she disagrees with those who say that they are not capable of participating in politics and business.

She echoed her predecessor’s comments that to improve gender equality, the conversation needs to be conducted with youth, with the next generation, because this is where change starts.

Not all who attended the event supported the idea of women’s participation. There was a contingent of young men who supported more traditional values.

“A good woman is a good supporter of her husband’s career,” said one of the students. “If both people work in a marriage, when they come home, where is dinner?”

Near the end of the afternoon, a young woman who had been helping to facilitate the event spoke up.

“We need to educate parents, because traditional values tell parents that their daughter should support her brother, and her education should wait,” she said.

“Then she is 20 and she should get married, and her education should wait. Soon after, she has children, and her education should still wait. But our education can’t wait.”

In response to one young man’s comments that it is a struggle for women to balance the demands of family and work or politics, a young woman shared a story:

“Forty ants started climbing the Eiffel Tower. One by one they decided it was too hard, and they yelled out to their friends, ’It’s too hard, we’re going back down.’

“At the end of the day, only one ant stood at the top of the Eiffel Tower, while the others stood at the bottom yelling, ‘You can’t climb that high.’

“It turns out,” said the girl, “the ant that made it to the top was deaf. So perhaps the lesson for young women is: at times you have to be a little deaf so you don’t listen to what you can’t do.”