Baku. Photo: flickr/teuchterlad
Baku. Photo: flickr/teuchterlad

Situated on the shores of the Caspian Sea, the land of Azerbaijan has a history of being incorporated into major regional empires such as those of the Arabs, Seljuk Turks, Persians and Russians since 3rd century AD. What was once a passage between the East and the West and a stop on the Great Silk Route, is today the modern Republic of Azerbaijan, the largest country of the South Caucasus (8.6 million population).

ESI's research in Azerbaijan focuses on the changing realities for women in the context of the country's socioeconomic and institutional transformation following the collapse of the Soviet system. Our field research has revealed both progress and a number of challenges in this sphere – as well as contradictory perceptions ranging from concern that the spread of religiosity is taking Azerbaijani women backwards, to presenting Azerbaijan as a model of women' s empowerment. Examining the changing realities of women sheds light on the condition of social protection, the labor force, statistics collection, the effectiveness of public administration in dealing with complex social phenomenon, as well as the democratic debate.

ESI's work also has a local capacity building component. We have held two capacity building seminars in Baku and through these seminars selected four researchers who we have worked with on case studies pertaining to women.

Country profile: Azerbaijan


Official name:


Republic of Azerbaijan


Declaration of independence from the Soviet Union:

30 August 1991


Surface area:


Azerbaijan is slightly bigger than Austria (84,000 km2). Its territory includes Nagorno-Karabakh, a self-declared, unrecognised republic and former autonomous region of Azerbaijan over which Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war between 1988 and 1994. Since then, Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent areas have been occupied by Armenia. The occupied areas make up 16-20% of Azerbaijan's territory.

Azerbaijan's surface area also encompasses the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, an exclave that remains a constituent part of Azerbaijan and is the place of origin of the ruling Aliyev family.


Water area:



Men at tea house




In 1999, when the last census was taken:




In 2008, estimated:


Women: 4,371,800 (51%), men: 4,258,100 (49%)

Urban: 4,464,800 (52%), rural: 4,165,100 (48%)

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent areas: 686,586 (UNHCR and government)



Ethnic groups:

In 1999, Azerbaijanis made up 90.6% of the population. Other ethnic groups included Lezgins (178,000 people or 2.2%), Russians (141,700 or 1.8%) Armenians (120,700 or 1.5%), Georgians (24,900 or 0.2%) as well as Avars, Talyshs, Udins, Kurds and Jews.




The overwhelming majority of the population are Shia Muslims, and there are small Christian and Jewish minorities.




The official language of Azerbaijan is Azerbaijani, which belongs to the group of Turkic languages.



Literacy (age 15+ who can read and write):

Men 99.5%, women 98.2 (1999 census)



Population growth 2000-2008 (estimated average annual):




Total fertility rate (2006):

2.3 (urban 2.1 / rural 2.5)[3]



Infant mortality rate (number of deaths of infants up to 1 year per 1000 live births):

There are discrepancies between the IMR reported by the national authorities and that estimated by international organisations. In 2007, the official rate was 12.1 and in 2006 it was 11.9, while UNICEF estimated it at 73 in 2006



Maternal mortality rate (annual number of death of women
from pregnancy-related causes per 100,000 live birth)

Similarly, there are also discrepancies between the MMR reported by the national authorities and that estimated by international organisations. For the period 2000 to 2006, the official rate was 26, while UNICEF estimated the rate for 2005 at 82.



Human Development Index 2008 (based on 2006 data)
(The HDI measures development by combining indicators of
life expectancy, educational attainment and income into a composite index.)

0.758 (rank 97 of 179 countries ranked)



Baku's new skyline




GDP growth:

25% (2007)[4]

After an economic downturn following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan's economy started to slowly grow again in 1996, to reach growth rates of an average 10% per year between 1998 and 2004. From 2005 onward, the economy boomed with 26.4% GDP growth in 2005, 34.5%[5] in 2006 and 25% in 2007.[6]



GDP per capita:

3,168.5 AZN / 3,692.4 US$ (2007)[7]



Average monthly salary:

214 AZN = 249 US$ (2007)[8]



Oil production:

42,597,000 tons of crude oil, including gas condensate (2007). Source: Statistical Office Azerbaijan



Oil export:

34,780,000 tons of crude oil, including gas condensate (2007). Source: Statistical Office Azerbaijan



Natural gas production:

10,832 million m3 tons of natural gas (2007). Source: Statistical Office Azerbaijan



Natural gas export:

1,823 million m3 tons of natural gas (2007). Source: Statistical Office Azerbaijan



Important pipelines:

Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC; operational since May 2005; capacity of 1 million barrels of oil/day)

Shah Deniz pipeline (operational since late 2006; transports gas from the Shad Deniz field in Azerbaijan to Turkey through Georgia)



Trade partners:

In 2007, Azerbaijan's main trading partners were Turkey (1.68 billion US$, which was 14.3% of the overall trade volume) and Russia (1.53 billion US$ or 13%). Other trading partners included Italy (9.2%), Iran (4.6%) and the USA (4.2%). Source: Statistical Office Azerbaijan



Labour force:

4,295,200 (in 2007). Source: Statistical Office Azerbaijan




In 2007 the official number of unemployed was 281,100 (6.5%): 163,900 men and 117,200 women.[9]

However, the figures provided by the national authorities are distorted. Estimates of real unemployment are 15-20%.




Azerbaijan ranks 158 (of 179 countries) in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index 2008





Government type:

Presidential system








The head of state is the president, who has far-reaching powers. He appoints the prime minister and each minister, who are then confirmed by parliament. He also appoints the heads of other executive bodies, such as his representatives in Azerbaijan's administrative and city districts and towns.

Since 31 October 2003, Ilham Aliyev has been the president. He was re-elected with 88.7% of the vote in October 2008. OSCE/ODIHR [10] noted shortcomings in these elections.




Parliament (Milli Mejlis) with 125 seats. Fourteen deputies are women (11.2%). Sixty-two seats are occupied by members of the ruling party YAP (Yeni Azerbaycan Partiyasi / New Azerbaijan Party), but some smaller parties also fully support the government. The last parliamentary elections were held on 6 November 2005. The next ones are due in November 2010.




Supreme Court



Administrative organisation of the country and government at the lower level:

Azerbaijan is divided into 66 administrative districts (rayon, pl. rayonlar), 13 city districts, 77 towns, 251 settlements and the Autonomous Republic Nakhchivan. Each administrative and city district as well as each town is headed by a government representative, the so-called "head of the executive power", who is appointed by the president. The head of the executive power in turn appoints his representatives in settlements and villages.

In 1999, Azerbaijan introduced "municipalities" in order to decentralise government. Municipalities have the status of non-governmental organisations, usually employ a very small number of people, and finance themselves from revenues they raise by selling and renting land and state subsidies. Municipalities are responsible for maintaining municipal roads, delivering social assistance to low-income people not covered by the state social programs, building parks and carrying out renovation work around the town, but their financial means are very limited. There is a municipality in the capital of a rayon, city district, settlement and larger village, while smaller villages share a municipality.


Aside from being the capital, Baku is the largest city and the economic, educational and administrative centre of Azerbaijan. Perched on the Absheron Peninsula, facing the Caspian Sea, it accommodates the largest port of the country. Today, this city of 1.9 million (officially) or 3 million (unofficially) inhabitants, is a huge construction site. The recent oil boom has led to a frenzied level of activity, including projects to renovate old structures, smarten up the avenues and parks, and to build new showpieces and residential buildings.

The first written record of Baku's existence dates from the 5th or the 6th century, depending on the source. For most of its history, Baku belonged to various Persian empires. In the early 18th century it became part of Tsarist Russia for the first time;in 1806 it was incorporated into the Russian Empire. With a few exceptions, including Azerbaijan's short-lived independence from December 1918 to April 1920, Baku remained under Russian and later Soviet control until the USSR's collapse in 1991.

While today the overwhelming majority of the population is Azerbaijani, back in 1913 Azerbaijanis accounted for just over one-fifth of Baku's 215,000 inhabitants, who included Russians, Armenians, Iranians, Germans, Jews and Georgians. The American journalist Tom Reiss describes Baku in his book, The Orientalist (2005).

"Baku is the sort of city that has been beyond rigid ideologies and religions for a thousand years. Its name is said to derive from a Persian expression, baadiye-kubiden, or 'blow of the winds'. Being situated at the head of a desert peninsula jutting into the sea, the city is in fact one of the wildest places on earth."

Indeed, its mixed heritage enriches both Baku's culture and landscape. The Molokan Garden – a park in downtown Baku – is named after the Molokans, a religious movement in Russia which denied the Russian Tsar's divine right to rule and rejected icons. Around 1839, the Tsar exiled them to the Caucasus.

Icheri Sheher - Maiden Tower - Shirvanshahlar Palace

Baku is built around the Inner City (Icheri Sheher), its walled historical centre. Apart from the camels, which no longer wander through the narrow streets, the city's description in Ali and Nino, a book set around 1920, remains valid:

"Through the labyrinth of streets, camels were walking, their ankles so delicate that I waned to caress them. In front of me rose the squat Maiden's Tower, surrounded by legends and tourist guides. And behind the tower the sea began, the utterly faceless, leaden, unfathomable Caspian Sea, and beyond, the desert - jagged rocks and scrub: still, mute, unconquerable, the most beautiful landscape in the world."

The Maiden Tower mentioned here is one of Azerbaijan's best-known monuments. The origin of the massive 12th century tower, built over earlier structures, is not known. Legend says that the tower was raised by a shah who fell in love with a beautiful young woman who rejected his advances. Enraged, he imprisoned her in the tower and demanded that she marry him. Rather than do so she threw herself from the roof and into the Caspian Sea (which, in those days, reached the tower's base).

In 2000, UNESCO declared Baku's Walled City – with the Maiden Tower and the Shirvanshah's Palace – a World Heritage Site. Three years later, given the pressure of urban development and the absence of sensible conservation policies, it decided to add it to the List of World Heritage in Danger.

While Bakuvians had always used Baku's oil to fuel lamps – and, according to the Venetian traveler Marco Polo (1254-ca. 1325), traded it – the first real oil well was drilled in 1848. Larger-scale oil development began in 1872 when the Russian imperial authorities auctioned off oil leases. Within a short period of time Swiss, British, French, Belgian, German, Swedish and American investors descended on Baku. The most prominent among them were Robert and Ludvig Nobel (brothers of Alfred Nobel, he of Nobel Prize fame) and the Rothschild family. An industrial oil belt, better known as the Black City, rose up near Baku. Azerbaijan's oil barons of the early 20th century invested part of their incomes in building large estates in the heart of the city.

In Soviet times, the estates were transformed into communal housing or used for other purposes. The Mukhtarov building, modeled after a Gothic church that the oil magnate had seen in France, became a wedding palace. The headquarters of the Ismayilov Oil Company, built between 1908 and 1913 by one of Baku's wealthiest oil barons, Musa Naghiyev, became home to the Presidium of Academy of Sciences.

Ismayilov Company Headquarters

Compared with the slowly decaying old city of the Soviet period, modern Baku is hardly recognisable. Skyscrapers, chic cafés, high-end shopping boutiques and renovation efforts have turned the city into a modern hub of business and leisure. Once a rather quiet place Baku has become a center of entertainment for the modern- day oil barons and the oil business-bred community of expats.

Baku also offers freedom and independence to Azerbaijani women. While a woman behind the wheel of a car – or at a teahouse – is an extremely rare sight anywhere else in the country, Bakuvian women drive cars, go to cafés and restaurants on their own, and even dare smoke in public. Baku's housewives also have it easier than women in the countryside: there is a constant supply of water, electricity and gas.

Baku's twin cities are Basra (Iraq), Bordeaux (France), Dakar (Senegal), Houston (USA), Izmir (Turkey), Mainz (Germany), Naples (Italy) and Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina).

Religious Inheritance

As a result of the presence of the Persian Empire on the territory of Azerbaijan (16th century onwards) the majority of the country practices the Shia branch of Islam. The call to prayers rising from the old mosques five times a day are a reminder of the rejuvination of Islam after the collapse of the Soviet Union – during Soviet times the call for prayer was lifted. (International Crisis Group "Azerbaijan: Independent Islam and the State").

Further reading:

Managing the Boom

Soon after independence, Azerbaijan experienced an economic collapse. This collapse, combined with the new oil production in Russia, resulted in a significant decline in Azerbaijan's oil production from 20 million tons (mt) in 1970 to 10mt in 1993 (World Bank, 1995). Azerbaijan went from supplying most of the Former Soviet Union's (FSU) oil to accounting for only 2 percent of FSU production (World Bank, 1995). Coupled with the collapse of all other industry after Soviet disintegration, living standards of Azerbaijani's plunged.

In 1994 an agreement was signed in Baku, geared at developing oil deposits in the Caspian Sea and transporting it westwards, known today as the 'Contract of the Century'. The contract resulted in an investment worth $7.5 billion by 13 different companies including Amoco, BP, McDermott, SOCAR, and Statoil. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and the Shah-Deniz pipeline were built to transport oil and gas to Turkey through Georgia and began pumping 1 million barrels a day in early 2006. "In 2006 GDP growth in Azerbaijan was above 30 percent in real terms, a world record". Growth of GDP in 2007 was also above 30 percent.

The skyline of Baku

The economic upturn is reflected in the booming construction sector, modern cafes and restaurants, high-end shops, boutiques and fancy cars streaming down the main roads of the capital. However revenues from the growing oil and gas production have not yet translated into improved life standards for a wide segment of society.

The 2005 World Bank report indicated that in 2001 the estimated overall poverty incidence in Azerbaijan stood at 50 percent and the extreme poverty rate was over 17 percent ("Proposed Poverty Reduction Support Credit to the Republic of Azerbaijan", April 2005). In 2003, the rate dropped to 44.7 percent ("Gender Assessment Report", 2005). Though formal unemployment stands at 6.7 percent, 42 percent of the working age bracket is not employed (ESI interview with Ramil Maharramov, Macro economist at USAID Financial Sector Development Project, February 2008).

Currently the oil sector accounts for about 54 per cent of GDP and three quarters of industry. The non-oil sector also grew by about 12 percent on average in the past two years partly reflecting spill over effects from oil and gas, especially in the machinery, chemical industry, construction, and telecommunication sectors.

Women and Development

Both poverty and unemployment have influenced women most. Women have lost jobs, particularly in industry, receive lower relative wages, and lost much of the social protection they enjoyed during Soviet times. As a result of unemployment and the need to care for their families, women in Azerbaijan have engaged in informal and 'nonstandard' work such as part-time, temporary or home-based jobs. The 2004 Labor Force Survey notes that 17 percent of women who reported themselves as employed (of 59.5 percent of economically active working age women according to 2003 Labor Force Survey) defined themselves as engaging in a "private entrepreneurial activity without forming a legal person," which suggests informal sector work.

A resurgence of traditional stereotypes and attitudes towards women is noted in a number of international reports. ("Gender Assessment Report", 2005).

Political Initiatives on Gender

However, there have been steps taken by the state in order to improve the situation. One such step was taken in 1995, when the newly formed Republic of Azerbaijan acceded to and ratified the CEDAW (UN Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). In 1998 the State Committee for Women's Issues was established. The understanding of the term 'gender equality' was further promoted through a 1997-2000 UNDP gender project in Azerbaijan which oversaw studies on gender violence, the gender aspects of the economic development and employment, the condition of IDP (Internally Displaced People) women and children and gender expertise in legislation. In 2000, the President issued a Decree on the State Women's Policy in the Republic of Azerbaijan. According the State Committee on Family, Women and Children Issues this Decree was crucial in raising the question of women and gender equality higher on the national agenda. Women's involvement in politics also increased after the very low point it had fallen to. The 2005 parliamentary elections resulted in 11.2 percent women representation. Though this number is miniscule in comparison to 39 percent of women deputies in USSR it is still higher than the number of women MPs in 1991 (of 349 deputies of the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan only 17 deputies or 4.8 percent were women) and 1992 (of 50 deputies of the Milli Mejlis only 3 deputies or 6 percent were women – "Gender Analysis Of Social And Political Life In Azerbaijan").

In 2006, the government adopted the Law on Gender Equality. There are a number of women NGOs who actively engage in raising gender related awareness among women as well as men, traveling to regions and holding seminars and trainings for women. Among these NGOs some noteworthy ones are Clean World, AGASIM (Center for Political Culture for Azerbaijani Women), Women Association for Rational Development and Women Crisis Center. The training they carry out aims to increase awareness among women about how to protect themselves from domestic violence, prostitution and trafficking and increase the information base on reproductive health and birth control.

Soviet past vs. current reality

Soviet based social assistance was run by state-owned enterprises and by revenues of the state budget. Under Soviet rule, social state assistance included several forms - cash benefits, day care, sport, food and leisure services, housing, transport, communication- and had several target groups: families with children, veterans, the disabled, elders, parentless children. Such tools were effective in not only reducing poverty but also in promoting women's employment (Nazim Habibov, "Social Assistance and the Challenges of Poverty and inequality in Azerbaijan, a Low-Income Country in Transition", 2005). Current state social assistance programs are more limited in amount and scope and are managed less effectively according to many recepients whom ESI has interviewed.

Mehriban Vezir, director of AGASIM (Center of Political Culture for Azerbaijani Women)

Currently, social assistance is low. For instance, the social assistance in the form of child allowances in Azerbaijan is too small to reduce the consumption deficit of the poor ("Gender Assessment Report", 2005). "About a year ago, the government decided to lift the only existing social assistance, which provided 1.80 manats = $2/per child/month to families with children (a family with more than three children was eligible to receive social assistance) and ratified a new law that only allowed families in real need to receive social assistance and in order to prove that they were in special need, the family or the individual had to provide 36 different documents. "Just obtaining these documents is not feasible for those at that level of poverty" (ESI interview with Mehriban Vezir, the director of local woman NGO AGASIM, December 2007).

Life outside of Baku

Map of Azerbaijan

The Republic of Azerbaijan consists of 65 administrative districts (rayons), 69 cities, 13 city districts, 130 urban villages, 4354 villages and one autonomous republic (muxtar respublika) of Nakhichevan, which in itself consists of 7 administrative districts and a capital, Nakhichevan city.

There are two main local governance entities: the Local Executive Committee (Icra Hakimiyyeti) and Municipalities (Belediyya).

Each administrative district has a Local Executive Committee (Ex-Com). The head of the local Ex-Com (governor) is appointed by the president. This is binding for all administrative districts apart from Nakhichevan where the governor is elected and approved by the parliament of Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic. The governor is supported by an executive apparatus and has broad authority to ensure the implementation of most public services. There is no locally constituted representative body or council that oversees the Ex-Com's work. Among all of the existing Ex-Coms, there are only two women among regional and city heads of the executive power in Azerbaijan.

In 1999, a law was passed by the National Parliament on the status of municipalities and on municipal elections. In contrast to Ex-Coms municipalities are established not at the district level but in every city, village, and settlement. There is also a low level of women represented in municipalities (Republic of Azerbaijan, "Public Administrative Country Profile", 2004). There are in total 2,673 municipal councils in Azerbaijan. Out of 20,346 municipal council members, only 4.1 percent are women and 95.9 percent are men. In contrast to parliamentary elections, women tend to be less interested in municipal elections (UNDP, Gender Assessment Report, 2007). In the 2006 municipal by-elections, 240 women ran for office, of whom 65 were elected (Parliamentary Assembly, "The Situation of Women in the South Caucasus", 2007).

Women in regions

Women living in the districts of Azerbaijan face more severe circumstances, with lower life standards and harsher gender based stereotypes. Though major initiatives for instrastructure have been launched in the past couple of years, some areas still do not have clean and safe water and  reliable supplies of energy. ("Proposed Poverty Reduction Support Credit to the Republic of Azerbaijan", April 2005).

Street in rural Sheki

ESI research in the district of Sheki in Northwest Azerbaijan has revealed increased economic opportunity and NGO activity in recent years however there is still an employment deficiency, infrastructural problems, and persisting patriarchal values. Other disadvantages of women in the regions are higher incidence of trafficking, gender-based violence, and health and nutrition problems.

Trafficking is a growing problem. According to an Asian Development Bank report, there are 500 women transported each month to Turkey and up to 4,000 to United Arab Emirates each year. Trafficking within the borders of the country (from rural to urban) is also a problem, with prostitution being the common cause. (Asian Development Bank, "Synthesis Report: Azerbaijan, Republic of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan", August 2006). There are three shelters for the victims of trafficking in the country, all in the capital. Two of these shelters are run by local women NGOs – Women Crisis Center, Clean World – and the other one is operated by the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Between 1988 and 1994, Azerbaijan was involved in a territorial conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Though a ceasefire was reached in 1994, the conflict remains unresolved to this day with 16 percent of Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh and seven other administrative districts surrounding the enclave) remaining under Armenian occupation. As a result of the war, a large influx of internally displaced persons and refugees (IDP/Rs) fled to other regions in Azerbaijan thus creating another vulnerable segment of the population. Many IDPs live in precarious circumstances, unable to meet the most basic needs and are heavily dependent on development assistance ("Gender Assessment Report", 2005). Although it has been almost a decade since the influx, the majority of IDPs continue to live in camps, prefab houses, farms and dugouts, railway carriages and public buildings such as schools, sports complexes, incomplete buildings and other inappropriate dwellings with poor facilities. In order to survive in such poor conditions, many IDP women work in the informal sectors as most of these women also lack skills required in the urban environment. The percentage of working IDP women is around 12.7 (Yelena Kasumova, 'Analysis of the Democratic Process in Azerbaijan: A Gender Perspective', 2007).

Facing violence at home

Domestic violence remains a taboo subject and is often denied. In 1998, CEDAW made a statement regarding this matter saying that it was "seriously concerned that insufficient efforts have been introduced to assess and combat violence against women…" (OMCT, "Violence Against Women in Azerbaijan", 2004).

There is no law addressing domestic violence per se, statistics are not collected on the issue, and women who have been victims of such abuse usually refrain from reporting the incident. 'What would people say; I will be the one to lose anyway, so what's the point?!' is a common reply of women when asked why they do not report their husbands.

The police forces lack specialized sex crimes units and often refrain from intervening in domestic violence cases. According to International Rescue Committee (IRC),

"…police are largely unable to provide support and security to survivors who come forward. Additional, there remain gaps between the legal codes for the protection of women and the prosecution of crimes of violence against women…"

(IRC, "Assessment on Violence and Women in Azerbaijan: An Overview of Violence in the Lives of Women in IRC's Beneficiary Population")

Women's and young girl's health indicators have also shown alarming indicators of growing cases of anemia, iodine deficiency and malnutrition. In fact according to a recent report published by the Asian Development Bank, micronutrient deficiency symptoms have been contributing to high instances of maternal mortality rate (MMR). Deteriorating and inaccessible health services further exacerbate the situation resulting in high rates of unattended births, poor quality professional services, and limited availability of drugs. (Asian Development Bank, 'Synthesis Report: Azerbaijan, Republic of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan', August 2006).

Politics and women's place

Azerbaijan proclaimed its independence twice-the first time following the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1918 (23 months later the country was invaded by Bolsheviks), and the second in 1991 as a result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Since '91, Azerbaijan has been an independent Republic ruled by a Presidential system. The country adopted its constitution on November 12 1995.

Ilham Aliyev

The President is elected for a five-year term by general and direct elections, by the majority of the votes. The current president of the Azerbaijan Republic is Ilham Aliyev. He was elected on October 31st 2003. The next presidential elections are going to be held in October 2008.

The executive power belongs to the President of the country, the legislative to Milli Majlis, and the judicial to the Constitutional Court, Supreme Court and the High Economic Court.

During Soviet times, women comprised 40 percent of the Supreme Soviet of the Azerbaijan Republic in 1989 (Asian Development Bank "Gender Assessment Synthesis Report: Azerbaijan, Republic of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistant", 2006). While there are no legal restrictions on women's participation in politics in Azerbaijan, female representation in politics is low. This has been largely related to existence of traditional social norms restricting women's roles in politics. Moreover there are still practices known as family voting, where men often cast the votes of their wives and other female members of their families ("Azerbaijani women in politics, governance and decision-making", 2007).

During the 2005 Parliamentary elections (next elections will be held in November 2009), out of 2,327 candidates who applied to the Central Election Committee only 10 percent were women. As a result of the elections, female deputies constitute 11.2 percent of the parliament (UNDP Gender Assessment Report, 2007).

Not one of the 29 Ministers is a woman. There is only one position occupied by a woman on the Ministerial Level and that is the chairman of the State Committee for Family, Women and Children issues – Hicran Huseynova. A woman has been appointed to the position of the local human rights defender in 2002 – the Ombudsman. The only female chairman of a state political party is the leader of Azerbaijan Liberal Democratic party, Lala Shovket Gajiyeva. (Ellada Khankishiyeva, "Women in Political Leadership").

ESI field research in Sheki

Sheki is a 70.000 resident city nestled at the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in Northwest Azerbaijan. ESI has spent time on the field in Sheki to see how Azerbaijan's economic boom impacts the lives of people, especially women.


The city of Sheki is the centre of Sheki district, one of the 65 districts of Azerbaijan. The life in the city of Sheki is rather quiet. There are several tea houses, restaurants and small shops. In tea houses you wouldn't see any women as it is considered inappropriate for a girl or a woman to pass her time at the tea house while she must get on with her household work – cleaning, taking care of the children, looking after the elderly in the family. Restaurants are popular spots for families and groups of male friends, where they can drink and talk about their lives, work etc. Recently a "Girls Cafe" where men are not allowed to enter was opened by a 30-year old woman called Mehriban, through an NGO business training and credit programme. Apart from these there are no cafes where you as a woman could sit down, order a latte and read your newspaper. In fact we didn't see many people reading newspapers. Sheki has five local newspapers – Sheki Qazet (Newspaper), Sheki Sesi (Voice), Sheki Belediyyesi (Municipality), Region (region) Sheki, Maarifchilik (general awareness raising) – which are published every month but printed in Baku as there is no printing press in the area.

As we continue walking we see big private houses just a little further from the city centre, with stone walls and red roof tops. In the city centre most of the housing units are Soviet style apartment blocks. No new residential developments. Most of the construction works in the city are for hotels and restaurants. There are also small shops being constructed either on the sides of the road or on the ground floor of apartment blocks.

As we walk towards the Palace of Khans on the hill top, we see no sidewalks but only tiny strip for pedestrians and even this is interrupted in places. Taxis drive back and forth, some with passengers, most empty. There are about 500 taxis in the city alone.

There is a main square, which has one tea house where men play backgammon and pool, one restaurant and some benches, but again no women even sitting on benches. The park is under renovation, as are many public spaces in Sheki. We did not see any women drivers – but we heard there are a couple.

Arzu Jabbarova
Arzu Jabbarova

However, there are women breaking out of the moulds and influencing others. Arzu Jabbarova is one such woman.

Arzu is the Sheki-Zaqatala region representative of the EU-TACIS program in Azerbaijan. She has founded three NGOs since 2001 and co-founded a handicrafts association. She trains young women in acquiring skills and setting up businesses. In 2000, for Arzu, her life today would have been a far-fetched dream.

At the age of 18, Arzu was married to a man 15 years older than her against her will. She had two daughters. Living with her husband and his mother, subject to strict regulations about what time she was supposed to come home from the school where she taught music, she was not happy, "He did not see me as an individual, there was no love, the only thing I was, was his wife" she recalls sadly. By signing a paper saying she would have no material demands from her husband and despite no support from her own family, she managed to divorce after seven years of marriage. Her mother rejected her but her grandmother took her in. She wandered into a handiwork course next door to her grandmother's house and started to give lessons there. From a woman taking lessons she heard about a training to take place in Sheki the next day on how to set up and run NGOs, organized by the 'Initiative for Social Action and Renewal in Eurasia'. Her grandmother forbid her to attend. She ran away from home and joined the second day of the course. "It was just the right thing for me. You create something new with projects to help other people".

Arzu Jabbarova explains her life to Nigar Goksel and Arzu Geybullayeva
Arzu Jabbarova explains her life to Nigar Goksel and Arzu Geybullayeva

From then on, Arzu's life changed profoundly. She wrote a letter to the Justice Minister for assistance and set up an NGO called Kaygi (Care) in 2001. She says it was the first registered NGO in Sheki. She organised sewing lessons for women, where health consulting would also be arranged. She started joining trainings in Baku and abroad.

Meanwhile, Arzu and her children had moved out of her grandmother's house into a rental place. This caused problems: "My neighbours talked, my neighbour's husband would come to my house and ask to have a relationship. If I were to go to the police, they would have said 'If you were good, he would not bother you'" So Arzu convinced her mother her work was not "bad" and moved in with her. The gossip stopped.

Business training of young women on August 12 2008, organized by Arzu Jabbarova
Business training of young women on August 12 2008, organized by Arzu Jabbarova

She worked for numerous NGO projects, on tourism, environment and development. She set up another initiative, later registered as an NGO, called Nur in 2002 and gave computer training. She also founded and runs the 'Regional Business Alliance of Women'.

In 2005, she started working for CHF, which gives small grants to community projects. Through this activity she travelled throughout the villages of the region, identifying the needs of the communities and encouraging them to develop projects. She became well-known. In late 2006, Arzu applied to be the regional representative of the TACIS programme (Technical Aid to the Commonwealth of Independent States) of the European Commission. She started working in this position as of January 2007.

In August this year she received an approval for project funding from the State Fund for NGOs. She will train women sewing, handicrafts and rug making, and the products will be sold to set up a cooperative. Arzu says many young people come to her for advice to set up NGOs.


[1] Statistical Office Azerbaijan, Statistical Yearbook of Azerbaijan 2008, p. 9.

[2] All population figures except fertility rate and IDP/refugee figures are from the Statistical Office Azerbaijan.

[3] Statistical Office Azerbaijan and UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), Women and Men in Azerbaijan - 2007, p. 166.

[4] Ministry of Economic Development, Main macro-economic indicators form the years 1995-2007, 2008.

[5] Ministry of Economic Development, Main macro-economic indicators form the years 1995-2007, 2008.

[6] Ministry of Economic Development, Main macro-economic indicators form the years 1995-2007, 2008.

[7] Statistical Office Azerbaijan, Statistical Yearbook of Azerbaijan, 2008, p. 347.

[8] Ministry of Economic Development, Main macro-economic indicators form the years 1995-2007, 2008.

[9] Statistical Office Azerbaijan and UNFPA, Women and Men in Azerbaijan - 2007, 2008, p. 241.

[10] "The election took place in a peaceful environment, but was characterized by a lack of robust competition, a lack of vibrant political discourse, and a restrictive media environment, and thus did not reflect some of the principles necessary for a meaningful and pluralistic democratic election." OSCE/ODIHR, Election Observation Mission Final Report, 15 December 2008,  Executive Summary, p. 2.