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Women in positions of power: Guarantors of women’s rights or just lip service?

Parliament speaker, first vice-president, and human rights ombudsman – these positions in Azerbaijan are held by women, but will this help resolve gender-related problems in the country?

The early parliamentary election held in Azerbaijan on 9 February 2020 will be remembered not only as a great example of voter fraud which many international observation missions highlighted, but also by the fact that a woman was appointed speaker for the first time in the history of an independent Azerbaijani parliament.

Who is Sahiba Gafarova?

Sahiba Gafarova, a member of Azerbaijan's ruling party, has been an MP since 2010. This is her third term as member of parliament. Gafarova, who holds a PhD in philology, previously also held the post of vice-rector of Baku Slavic University. She was a deputy chair of the parliamentary committee on family, women and children.

Acording to pro-government media published after she was appointed speaker, in 2015-17 Gafarova was elected "PACE's main rapporteur on the fight against violence against women and political coordinator and head of the network 'No to violence against women!', and that she led the PACE Sub-Committee on Gender Equality and Non-Discrimination".

Despite the impressive list of positions she has held, nothing is known about any initiatives or practical work by Gafarova regarding women. She has turned out to be a "dark horse" for many people in the country. "I just heard on the radio on my way to work that someone called Sahiba Gafarova has been nominated for the post of parliament speaker. Who is that, does anyone know her?" social media users wrote after Gafarova was elected.

A total of 22 women are in the current Azerbaijani parliament. There were 21 women in the previous parliament. There are 99 male MPs in the new parliament.

Women at the helm

Women also currently lead two parliamentary committees: the committee on family, women and children, and the committee on culture.

Moreover, a woman holds the post of first vice-president. The post was created in 2017 and Mehriban Aliyeva, the country's first lady, was appointed to it.

Previously, Mehriban Aliyeva was a member of parliament for many years.

In addition, women in Azerbaijan have held the posts of chair of the state committee on family, women and children, and human rights plenipotentiary – ombudsman for many years. In addition, under orders issued by Ilham Aliyev, there should be at least one woman among deputy heads of all executive bodies in the country.

It all looks great on paper. However, what real effect does it have on the resolution of a large number of "women's problems" in the country?

Violence, murders, child marriage

Azerbaijan joined the convention "On the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women" back in 1995, but gender-based discrimination and gender-related problems in the country manifest themselves at the economic, social and domestic levels. This country ranked 70th among 162 countries on last year's Gender Inequality Index.

Problems such as selective abortion, child marriage, and femicide continue to be hot-button problems in the country. Per 100 newborn girls there are currently 117 boys in Azerbaijan, with the global norm being 105 girls per 107 boys.

Numbers associated with femicide – gender-based killings of women – are equally discouraging. According to official statistics alone, women constituted 74.9 per cent of victims of crimes related to domestic violence in Azerbaijan in 2018.

In October 2019, 12 women were murdered in the country, with six of them killed in front of their own children.

Azerbaijan has not yet signed the "Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence", better known as the Istanbul convention. However, the country is supposed to sign the convention in accordance with its commitments as a member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (the CEDAW committee). Of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, only Azerbaijan and Russia have not signed the document.

During their latest protests in Baku on 20 October and8 March, feminists advocated the signing of the convention and tackling of many gender-related problems, such as numerous killings of women, selective abortion, gender-motivated violence, child marriage, girls being deprived of education, and forced marriage. The protesters, however, received a harsh rebuff from police officers, and dozens of women, including journalists, were injured.

No reaction came from women in positions of power in Azerbaijan to the cruel treatment demonstrated by police. The women protesters never received support for their demands from them either.

"When was the last time that we had heard from the lips of any woman in a senior position about what kinds of cases of domestic violence there are in this country and what action will be taken about them? When 12 women were killed in October 2019 alone, did any of the women in positions of power put this issue on the agenda, did they address the public with any statement? What specific action was taken? Was psychological assistance provided to the families of those people?" asks civil activist Gunel Safarova, a former parliamentary candidate.

Women MPs have a hard time in parliament as well

Female candidates who ran in the February parliamentary election in Azerbaijan either did not address issues such as gender equality, women's problems or domestic violence in their election manifestos or highlighted problems that appear insignificant amid violations of fundamental rights.

Only some of the female candidates' manifestos highlighted things such as enhancement of women's activity in society, employment, etc.

Albeit in this context, too, we can become a role model for the West.

"We have already resolved many of the issues that the West is trying to resolve in the field of gender policy," says Sahiba Gafarova in one of her rare interviews, referring to problems with inequality regarding pay that women receive for their work and women's employment. However, her statement contradicts data published by the State Statistics Committee.

True, some of the more active women MPs themselves have had to face discrimination in parliament. Ganira Pashayeva, who has been elected MP several times, Hijran Huseynova, the former chair of the state committee on family, women and children, and Elmira Akhundova, a former MP, currently Azerbaijan's ambassador to Ukraine, in their speeches at different times addressed issues related to women's rights in Azerbaijan but receive a harsh response.

In 2006, during a speech she delivered in parliament, Elmira Akhundova, who was then a member of the Milli Majlis, protested against child marriage, the fact that 80 per cent of women in the country faced domestic violence, and that even after contacting the police, women eventually had to return to their families. Back then, her speech was met with a protest from mostly male members of parliament.

Then, in a speech she delivered at the meeting, MP Ganira Pashayeva called the harsh reaction to Akhundova's speech psychological violence against a woman.

"Men are speaking more here, but it would be better if women spoke. I strongly urge our men not to react to women's speeches so harshly… In fact, this is psychological violence. Because we are talking not only about physical violence, but also about moral and psychological violence," she said back then.

After a woman was elected speaker of parliament, many started talking even more actively about the fact that women in positions of power are only symbolic figures, lip service that the government uses as a counter-argument to statements that there is gender inequality in the country. "The election was done based on the principles that she speaks English, is more or less well-mannered, has no ambitions and is obedient," says yet another social media comment following Sahiba Gafarova's election.

"I am in favor of women holding senior positions. We have long advocated the idea that women should hold leadership positions and be given authority. I think it is a very good thing that a woman is speaker," says former parliamentary candidate Gunel Safarova, adding that she would like to see them be more active, including in the field of protection of women's rights.

However, she believes, election or appointment should be carried out on the basis of experience, knowledge and skills of the person being appointed, and not based on the principle -"one woman holding a senior position is a must".

"But it is a good thing that they at least hold senior positions," said Gunel Safarova. "This way, people will get used to the fact that women hold leadership positions in Azerbaijan. And then, maybe, they will be able to start defending women's rights in a more active manner."

/with the support of the Russian Language News Exchange