By Jennifer Brookland

The second Women’s Leadership Conference held in Shamkir, Azerbaijan produced 23 policy recommendations on gender and women’s issues that participants hope will contribute to making gender equality a reality.

More than 100 people attended the daylong event focused on women’s entrepreneurship and economic leadership, including government officials from several agencies, local NGOs and international organizations.

“Women entrepreneurs represent a powerful source of economic growth and opportunities and I cherish a hope that the recommendations brought forward at this conference will be taken into consideration by decision-makers,” says Ilgar Agassiyev, Counterpart International’s Chief of Party in Azerbaijan.

Counterpart’s Women’s Participation Project (WPP), a two-year initiative funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, sponsored the conference in cooperation with the State Committee on Family, Women and Children’s Affairs and the Azerbaijani Confederation of Entrepreneurs.

WPP works with a consortium of local organizations 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, social and economic life.

Prosperous women, prosperous communities

Working groups at the conference held vibrant discussions on strengthening women’s participation in local governance, and including women as civil society leaders to strengthen organizations and create more women-focused initiatives.

One group deliberated how to develop women’s entrepreneurship and enhance their economic opportunities by mainstreaming gender equality issues into state programs.

“We should always remember that as one woman’s business prospers, so does her community,” said USAID Mission Director Michael Greene.

Greene pointed out the Government of Azerbaijan’s commitment to supporting women entrepreneurs, noting that it allocated more than $4.6 million to female entrepreneurs during the past ten years and continues to extend them low-interest credit.

“But we need to consolidate our efforts to enhance women’s entrepreneurship even more,” he said.

Though government support for women’s empowerment has been strong, change has been slow to come to Azerbaijan.

Traditional beliefs about women’s roles in society remain a barrier for those who want to pursue education or employment. Girls are increasingly married off at 15 or 16 years old, human trafficking is widespread, and domestic abuse and violence are prevalent.

New awareness of old problems

The first annual Women’s Leadership Conference, held in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku in Nov. 2012, focused more on bringing women into social and civic leadership and empowering them to be decision-makers.

That event influenced WPP program activities and campaigns, such as public service announcements addressing topics like early marriage that aired on national television.

Those PSAs were screened during the 2013 conference, reminding participants that the struggle to achieve equal rights and participation for women relies as much on awareness among families and communities as it does on government action.

But official attention to women’s equality and empowerment is a much hoped-for outcome of the conference, especially since recommendations issued at the first conference have yet to be incorporated into legislation.

The 23 new recommendations include municipal-level monitoring of implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, a United Nations agreement commonly described as an international bill of rights for women. Azerbaijan acceded to the convention in 1995.

They also call for a special government program to support and promote women’s entrepreneurship and intensive training programs for public employees on gender equality.

The recommendations were submitted for consideration by the State Committee for Family, Women and Children’s Affairs, and will then go to the Cabinet of Ministers.

They already have some high-level supporters.

“Development of women’s entrepreneurship is a priority for the gender policy of the Azerbaijani Government,” says Sadagat Gahramanova, Deputy Chairman of the State Committee on Family, Women and Children Affairs.

Gahramanova also highlighted the need to provide training for female entrepreneurs—especially those from rural areas working in small and medium-scale businesses—connect them to markets and promote their sales.

“I liked the enthusiasm and efforts the participants put into discussions,” says Malaht Hassanova, a Member of Parliament who pledged to advance and support the recommendations. “These should be important components of efforts directed to supporting gender equality principles and policies in the country.”

Click the links below to watch public service announcements screened during the conference:
Shattered Dream
The Life Ladder
Raise your voice against domestic violence
Gender Equality Support
The Scale of Rights

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