While Azerbaijan is getting tough on human trafficking, officials in Baku are lagging on efforts to address the more pervasive problem of domestic violence. Experts say the dichotomy reveals a willingness to combat foreign ills while turning a blind eye to those closer to home.
In recent meetings held across Azerbaijan, facilitated by the Azerbaijan Women's Bar Association (WBA), women have recounted tales of excessive verbal, emotional, and physical abuse -- and the inability to escape from the hands of their abusers.
"When I was a teenager, I witnessed how a young wife was repeatedly and brutally beaten by her husband," recalled a participant from the town of Lankaron, not far from Azerbaijan's Iranian border. After the husband broke both of his wife's hands she attempted to escape her village. "The woman was told by her neighbors; 'you are a young wife and you have to get through it and endure.'"
Although no reliable official statistics on domestic violence exist, several surveys conducted by international organizations between 2001 and 2004 found that 30 to 43 percent of women in Azerbaijan reported suffering from domestic abuse.
The government has tried to stop violence against women with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Baku has invested substantial resources in combating international human trafficking. In 2005, parliament passed a law creating a national anti-trafficking coordinator in the Ministry of the Interior. Hundreds of traffickers (mainly low-level) have since been brought before Azerbaijani courts, according to ministry statistics.
But unlike trafficking, the country has failed to address domestic violence against women and children. A draft law criminalizing domestic violence was introduced into parliament in 2007. It has languished in committee ever since.
Although some members of parliament support the measure, others criticize the law as unnecessary, describing it as an attack on Azerbaijani values. "Families are not supposed to be run by laws, but by traditions," parliamentarian Musa Quliyev, a member of the member of the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party and deputy director of the Standing Committee on Social Policy, told the Zerkalo-Ayna daily shortly after the law was introduced.
A 2006 survey by the US Agency for International Development and Azerbaijan's State Statistical Committee and Ministry of Health underlined the scope of support for that notion. Nearly 57 percent of 2,558 male respondents believed that a husband was justified in beating his wife; 49 percent of 8,444 female respondents said the same. Forty-two percent of respondents believed that a beating was acceptable, if a wife leaves the house without telling her husband. Thirty-one percent concurred, if a wife argues with her husband.
It is not only members of parliament, however, who find fault with the draft law. Sabina Gahramanova, president of the WBA, explains that much of the domestic violence law was "cut and paste" from international sources. This has created a sense that the law is not a home-grown piece of legislation.
It also provides an easy target for detractors. MP Quliyev charged that "European organizations" and "the Christian world" promote such laws "to destroy the Muslim-Turkish family notion."
These days, Quliyev remains a fierce opponent of the bill. Asked in February by 525 Gazeta, an online news site, about the inclusion of the domestic violence law on parliament's spring agenda, he reiterated his earlier stance: "I think there is no need for this law in Azerbaijan. It will not bring any benefit to . . . society, but harm," he stated.
International appearances appear to be a significant factor in Azerbaijan's decision to fight trafficking while ignoring domestic violence against women. "I think [Azerbaijan] has been focusing on trafficking because it is more of an international issue," commented Arzu Geybullayeva, an Azerbaijani analyst specializing in women's rights with the European Stability Initiative (ESI), a Berlin-based research institute. Azerbaijan "cares a lot about its image abroad," so it is more willing to take steps to address the problem, Geybullayeva added.
The presidential administration declined to comment to EurasiaNet on the perception of a discrepancy in addressing women's rights issues.
"There is considerable international pressure to act on [human trafficking] right now," said New York University anthropologist Sally E. Merry. "It offers governments a chance to regulate immigration and focuses on external threats to a country in the form of traffickers who may be outsiders."
Taking on domestic violence, on the other hand, is less palatable to governments like Azerbaijan because it involves "rethinking gender roles in the family," Merry said. Local experts agree that the rigid gender-role mentality will not be easy to change.
A nascent women's movement, however, is attempting to do just that. More non-governmental organizations are focusing on women's issues and organizing trainings to discuss issues such as trafficking, early marriages, and domestic violence. Several youth groups have taken up the issue as well.
Activists are quick to point out the challenges they face in overcoming prejudices and stigmas in Azerbaijani society: in a male-dominated society, many women are often isolated and feel no sense of solidarity with other women. In addition, women are well aware of the lack of political will to promote change. "Violence against women is a taboo subject in Azerbaijan," noted ESI's Geybullayeva.
Rashad Shirinov, a self-proclaimed feminist and founder of the AN Network youth movement, laments the absence of a broader intellectual gender movement in Azerbaijan. "There are organizations that organize seminars, but they don't turn into a movement," he explained.
Most Azerbaijanis involved in women's rights campaigns see little prospect for a full-fledged women's rights movement. "Our lives are hard," said Khalisa Shahverdiyeva, project director for the WBA's Legal Aid Project. Given economic and societal pressures, "most women don't have the time [to get involved]."
While young Azerbaijanis often "want to change things," she added, "they need support." Few, however, expect the government support activists seek will come anytime soon.
Gahramanova, the WBA president, believes that expanding public awareness is the first step. "Our work can be compared to drops of water," she said. "Drop by drop, we can make changes."
Jessica Powley Hayden is a freelance reporter based in Baku.