‘Bad girls’ no more: Azerbaijani women claim a role in public life

One project beneficiary opened a successful wedding planning business.
After completing a course in entrepreneurship at the UNDP-supported Women’s Resource Centre, Rena Mehraliyeva opened a successful wedding and event-planning business. Photo: UNDP Azerbaijan

In some parts of Azerbaijan, visiting an Internet café can get a women ostracized from her community. Simply attending a public event may get her labelled a “pis giz” – or bad girl – a powerful gender slur that often translates into stigma, ineligibility for marriage and a loss of respect in local society.

As a consequence, many rural women have little opportunity to participate in public life and even less chance to influence decision making. In the small rural city of Sabirabad, UNDP is working with the State Committee for Family, Women and Children’s Affairs (SCFWCA) to create a safe environment for women to take part in social and economic life.

The main goals of the project are to stimulate economic activity among rural women and strengthen their role in local decision-making. The project also sensitizes the private sector and the general public to gender concerns and the benefits of engaging women.

Highlights

  • In parts of Azerbaijan, women face stigma and isolation for breaking with local norms of conduct.
  • UNDP is working with the Government of Azerbaijan to empower rural women in economic and social matters.
  • More than 200 women have benefitted from training on entrepreneurship and other topics at the Women’s Resource Centre in Sabirabad.
  • The project has supported the establishment or expansion of 12 women-led businesses; some of the beneficiaries now employ other women from the community.
  • The next phase of the project is to expand to other rural communities, with a special focus on empowering young and disabled women.

The region’s first Women’s Resource Centre (WRC) opened its doors in Sabirabad, offering the safe public space that so many rural Azerbaijani women have long been denied. “Top priorities of the centre are to foster an environment for women to educate themselves and cultivate real social and economic opportunities,” the head of centre, Aygun Aliyeva, said.

More than 200 women have benefited from training sessions and seminars at the WRC. A pilot training course on entrepreneurship gave Rena Mehraliyeva the knowledge and confidence to act on a long-standing dream to establish a wedding and event-planning business.

“Before this project, I was no one, a housewife sitting at home and depending on my husband. I began to feel myself useless,” Rena recalls. “The only contribution I could give to society was my two children. I couldn’t realize my dream, as I didn’t know where to start.”

Rena’s proposal was one of 12 micro-enterprise projects selected to receive funding. The business clearly serves a need in the area. As soon as it opened its doors, multiple orders flooded in, and now the agency is gradually expanding beyond Sabirabad and winning customers from across the region.

“Thanks to this project, I have learnt a lot and finally launched my business that I have always been thinking about,” Rena says. “Everyone respects me in the village, because I am a successful woman. I want many women in Sabirabad to be respected because of their success.”

Several other women have launched or expanded their businesses after taking the course; some now employ other women from the community. The WRC has helped more than 50 women to develop their resume-writing and interviewing skills. The participants had the opportunity to practice their new skills when the centre organized a job fair featuring more than 20 companies and state agencies seeking qualified candidates.  

Elvin Aliyev, the director of the Sabirabad branch of DemirBank, stressed the importance of the job fair and enhancing the role of women in business. “Women are a vital part of decision-making,” he said. “Such inclusion makes the company more productive and dynamic to changes. It is in our core interest to recruit qualified women.”

The WRC reaches out to the general public with the message that women’s empowerment benefits the entire community. The project has produced two booklets, six guidelines and three training manuals on women’s rights, gender equality and entrepreneurship. Some 500 women and men have taken part in discussions and round tables on gender issues.

At the same time, UNDP Azerbaijan worked with the State Committee’s staff to support them in developing relevant policies and programmatic interventions for the economic empowerment of rural women.

The Deputy Chairperson of the State Committee, Sadagat Gahramanova, welcomed the success of the project and looked forward to building on the partnership. “SCFWCA and UNDP came together, worked hard and shared knowledge to empower women – persons who create future generations,” she said. “We are ready to cooperate in this area with UNDP, not just locally but regionally too.”

Partnering with UNDP is part of the Azerbaijani government’s strategy to meet its commitments under the first and third Millennium Development Goals as well the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on gender equality.

After the success of the pilot phase in Sabirabad, UNDP is working to expand the project to reach other rural communities in Azerbaijan, with a particular focus on empowering young and disabled women. The goal is to ensure that women’s voices are heard and that no woman is branded a “bad girl” for seeking a role in public life.

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