By Jennifer Brookland
More than 100 government leaders, community activists and donors assembled in Baku, Azerbaijan, to create an action-oriented agenda for forwarding women’s advancement and political involvement.
“Empowering women, empowering over 50 percent of the population, is one of the most important initiatives we can undertake to promote sustainable development,” said Michael Greene, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Mission Director in Azerbaijan.
Green thanked the organizers of the first annual Women’s Leadership Conference, held Nov. 27 and 28, for bringing together diverse stakeholders who were concerned about women’s rights and dedicated to moving the issue forward.
The conference was held under the auspices of USAID’s Women’s Participation Project, implemented by the global nonprofit Counterpart International in partnership with the government of Azerbaijan and 13 local civil society organizations.
The Women’s Participation Project works to help Azerbaijan fulfill its obligations under the Convention Eliminating All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)—a UN agreement commonly described as an international bill of rights for women. Azerbaijan acceded to the convention in 1995.
“This conference will serve as a stepping stone in further increasing the dialogue and cooperation among all these stakeholders in meeting CEDAW obligations,” said Sibel Berzeg, Counterpart’s Vice President of Government and Civil Society Strengthening.
Counterpart’s project also aims to improve the status of women in Azerbaijan by advancing their influence in decision-making processes, supporting civil society organizations that focus on issues important to women, and raising public awareness of those concerns.
Participants formed working groups to discuss and prioritize issues facing women in Azerbaijan and to debate the role of civil society in the policy-making process.
Their resulting policy recommendations centered on implementing existing legislation—observing gender equality at the local level when awarding property rights, and improving the targeted social assistance to low-income women, for example.
Further recommendations called for increased monitoring, analysis and research on gender issues such as women’s representation in state bodies and Azerbaijan’s compliance with international standards for gender equality.
A third group of suggestions was aimed at increasing public awareness of gender issues, for instance through intensive training for social workers who interact with victims of domestic violence and by explaining the negative consequences of gender-based violence in school textbooks.
The working groups also suggested a temporary quota system as a way of increasing women’s representation on government structures and state agencies.
More than half of the countries in the world have implemented some type of political quota for women’s representation, according to the World Bank.
The final recommendations will be submitted to the parliament for consideration. Local organizations that partner with the Women’s Participation Project will also incorporate them into their advocacy campaigns.
A key role for women
The government recognizes the challenge of implementing gender policies and is open to cooperating with civil society and international organizations, said Hijran Huseynova, Chairwoman of the State Committee for Family, Women and Children Affairs.
But Huseynova envisioned a key role for Azerbaijani women themselves.
“We encourage women to take ownership in their own development,” Huseynova said, “as without their will we will not succeed.”
Azerbaijan has a history of taking steps to empower women; it was the first Islamic state to grant women political rights equal to men, and more recently issued a series of progressive laws on domestic violence, gender equality, anti-trafficking and the minimum age of marriage.
Despite policies protecting and empowering women that are on the books in Azerbaijan, troubling gender issues such as early marriage and gender based violence remain, compounded by an underrepresentation of women in politics and business.
Seventeen percent of Azerbaijani women say they have no say in everyday decisions such as their own health care, household purchases, or visits to relatives, according to the United Nations Development Fund for Women.
A second conference planned for next year will provide an opportunity to discuss the project’s successes and lessons learned from these initial advocacy and public outreach campaigns.
Reporting for this piece contributed by Altinay Kuchukeeva