Azerbaijan Urged to Act Faster on Domestic Violence

Women’s rights activists note rise in murders and suicides in the home.

Rights activists in Azerbaijan say the government has yet to live up to its promises to protect women from domestic violence, as key provisions of a 2010 law have yet to be put into practice.

According to Mehriban Zeynalova, head of the Clean World group which helps the victims of abuse over the last year, the headline figures are alarming.

Eighty-three women were murdered at home last year, and 98 others committed suicide in cases linked to domestic violence. Both figures represented a sharp increase on those for 2012, when 72 murders and 67 suicides were recorded.

One of these murders was that of Narmina Valiyeva, a 15-year-old who died after she ran away from home, only for police to bring her back there instead of referring her to social services as a vulnerable minor.

After she was brought back, Narmina’s parents took her to a gynaecologist who confirmed that she was still a virgin, to dispel what her father said were “rumours in the village”, and then took her home. Her 16-year-old brother has been arrested and charged with her murder.

Zeynalova says negative social attitudes and police failing to take proper action combine to make a bad situation worse.

“The stereotypical view is that violence within the family is a matter for that family alone,” Zeynalova explained. “So instead of protecting someone who’s fled her home, they return her to that family. This is the cause of these tragedies,” she said.

Among the 720 women who sought help from Zeynalova’s group last year was a 33-year-old from Shamkir district in northwestern Azerbaijan.

She told IWPR how her mother pressured her into marrying a cousin, who left her five years later and went off to Russia.

“My family sent me to him three times, and every time he sent me back. Officially we’re still married because my family won’t let me apply for a divorce,” she said.

Things got worse when the woman told her own family that she had met someone else and fallen in love.

“My brother found out about it. He locked me inside the house, bound my hands and feet and beat me for days, abusing me in all sorts of ways. It all happened in front of my children. He threatened to take them away from me if I got married,” she said. “Not even my mother would stick up for me.”

The Clean World group does not have a shelter for abused women, and is unable to house the woman and her two children to live.

“If I go back home, they’ll just kill me,” she said.

Azerbaijan’s parliament passed a law designed to stop domestic violence in 2010, but key parts of it cannot be implemented since that would require a set of amendments to the criminal code. These have not yet been passed.

Matanat Azizova, head of the Women’s Crisis Centre, explained that a central part of the law envisaged the establishment of refuges for the victims of domestic violence.

“These shelters, together with safety orders and [other] legislative actions, could have provided secure lives for women. But sadly officials are not working on this,” said Azizova, whose centre saw 2,500 women last year. “The number of suicides and domestic murders has therefore increased.”

Hijran Huseynova, head of the government’s Committee for Families, Women and Children, disagrees with the argument that domestic violence is on the increase.

“It’s just that people used to talk about it less; mostly it stayed within the family. Now cases are more likely to appear in the press. That’s why you get a sense that these cases are happening more frequently,” she told APA news agency.

Huseynova argues that with domestic abuse, the main focus of policy should be on early marriage. While minors are forbidden to marry under Azerbaijan’s secular system of laws, this still occurs, with a Muslim wedding rite but no state registration.

“Domestic violence mainly occurs after early marriages. Early marriages are themselves a form of abuse, and the committee is expending all its energy on trying to prevent them,” Huseynova said.

Huseynova’s deputy Sadaqat Pashayeva argued that the committee had done a lot of work since 2010, but that it was up to the labour and social affairs ministry to set up the shelters.

“We have done educational work. We have opened resource centres where women can go for help if they’re in trouble,” Pashayeva told IWPR.

Elman Babayev, a spokesman for the labour and social affairs ministry, said two million manats (2.5 million US dollars) had been assigned from last year’s budget to set up the refuges, although they were not yet functioning.

“We are trying to make progress towards making these projects a reality. Once the shelters are ready, we will inform the press,” he told IWPR.

Aytan Farhadova works for the Bizim Yol newspaper in Azerbaijan.