By Ilgar Agasibeyli

When a crowd of around 70 people listened to Aytekin Verdiyeva make an impassioned speech on women’s leadership in Azerbaijan, no one could have guessed it was the state official’s first-ever public oration.

“I was overwhelmed with feelings when I was making my first public speech as a government official,” says Verdiyeva.

Most women in Azerbaijan never achieve prominence in public and professional roles, constrained by conservative social values and an inability to enforce legal frameworks protecting women’s political participation.

But if Verdiyeva’s story is any indication, that situation seems to be gradually changing.

The shy 28 year-old struggled to find a job after graduating from the Azerbaijan Technology Institute, and says she had very little confidence in her own skills and capacity.

Verdiyeva’s perception of herself and her career potential transformed while she was attending women’s leadership workshops organized by the Ganja Regional Women’s Center.

For the past year, the center has been working with women in four regions of Azerbaijan to overcome their limitations, both self-perceived and imposed by society, and pursue more visible public roles.

It offers seminars and workshops on supporting women’s leadership and increasing their involvement in decision-making.

These training opportunities were made possible by the Women’s Participation Project, implemented by Counterpart International in close partnership with 13 local women’s organizations and Azerbaijan’s State Committee for Women, Family and Children’s Affairs.

The two-year USAID-funded program seeks to improve the status of women in Azerbaijan by raising public awareness on issues that affect women and empowering more women to engage in political processes.

“I would say without exaggeration that confidence blossomed in my inner world after participating in the leadership events organized by the Women’s Participation Program,” says Verdiyeva.

In fact, she became one of the most active participants.

Rising rapidly from her position as a government clerk, Verdiyeva quickly claimed the position of Senior Advisor of the State Social Security Fund.

She acknowledges that the leadership seminars helped her make the decision to apply for the Senior Adviser vacancy she saw advertised. She successfully passed the written test exams and interviews, surpassing competition that included other qualified male and female candidates.

“Aytekin Verdiyeva became a good role model for her peers,” says Maleyka Alizade, the executive director of the Ganja Regional Women’s Center. “And she is not just a ‘first swallow’ announcing the growing confidence of women in our region. Our women have great capacity for leadership and political participation.”