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Special Rapporteur on violence against women finalizes country mission to Azerbaijan

BAKU (5 December 2013) – At the end of a 10-day mission to Azerbaijan, which took her to Baku, Khachmaz, Ganja, Lankaran, Sumgayit and Qaradaq, Ms. Rashida Manjoo, UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, delivered the following statement:

“At the outset, I would like to express my appreciation to the Government of Azerbaijan for extending the invitation to conduct this official country visit. I am grateful to all my interlocutors, including State officials at the national and local level, representatives of civil society organisations, and representatives of United Nations agencies. I particularly want to thank the individual survivors of violence who shared their experiences with me.

The commitment of the Government to the promotion and protection of human rights is reflected in its engagement with international human rights mechanisms such as the United Nations Treaty Bodies and the Universal Periodic Review, but also its cooperation with regional human rights institutions. Some specific legal measures have been taken towards achieving equality and non-discrimination goals generally, including for women. This is reflected in the adoption of laws such as the Gender Equality Law (2006) and the Law on Combating Domestic Violence (2010). The Family Code, which was amended in 2011, increased and equalised the age of consent to marriage to 18 years for both girls and boys.

Azerbaijan has adopted various policies relevant to gender mainstreaming and human rights. Some of these include: the State Program on Poverty Reduction and Sustainable Development (2006-2015), the Employment Strategy (2006-2015), the ’National Plan of Action on human rights (2011) and the Development Concept “Azerbaijan 2020: Look into the Future”. Furthermore, gender focal points have been designated in each Ministry.

The establishment in 2006 of the State Committee for Family, Women and Children Affairs, mandated to lead and implement the State policy and programmes relating to women’s issues, was also a positive step taken by the Government. I was informed by the Committee of the numerous awareness raising campaigns, trainings and studies conducted by them, as well as the establishment of 11 Family Support Centres in the regions.

The Government of Azerbaijan has focused on initiatives relating to the empowerment of women in public life, including through training and awareness raising activities. The participation of women in political life has increased and currently the Parliament includes 19 women, including the Vice-Speaker, among its 125 Parliamentarians. The importance of the economic development of women has been acknowledged, and attempts are being made to decrease the family responsibility burden on women, through the development of child care facilities, and opportunities have been created for accessing of capital by women entrepreneurs. According to information received, of the half a million entrepreneurs that are currently listed, 15% are women.

During the mission, the vast majority of interviewees acknowledged that violence against women is widespread in Azerbaijan, but the actual extent of the phenomenon is very difficult to assess. This is due to factors such as the lack of disaggregated data; the problem of reliability of the information provided; the significant underreporting of cases of violence against women; the lack of a centralised information system to monitor the various manifestations of violence against women; the focus on mediation and reconciliation in matters involving violations of women’s rights; and the lack of usage and also implementation of laws that would address the issue of accountability, among others.

According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, there were 5478 crimes against women in 2012 and 6705 in 2011. According to the State Committee for Family, Women and Children Affairs, 87 women committed suicide in 2011, and 105 in 2012, but no explanations were provided. I am also extremely concerned by the statistics that were shared with me on gender related killings of women. The killing of a woman is the ultimate act of violence and is a reflection of the lack of protection and prevention measures when other acts of violence are not addressed by state authorities. Trafficking of women, for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation and forced labour, was also cited as a worrying issue. According to statistics received, 89 cases of trafficking of women had been reported in 2012.

The increasing number of early, forced and unregistered marriages, in particular in the Southern region, was consistently pointed out as a matter of concern. According to the State Committee, more than 5000 girls have been victims of early marriages in 2013 (the approximate figure for 2012 was 4000). The consequences of early marriages are detrimental to the individual on many levels including the physical and mental, the educational, social and economic, as well as the reproductive health of girls. As stressed by the Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in its 2009 concluding observations, the State should continue developing measures, including sustained awareness-raising campaigns, and work with communities and religious authorities to prevent such marriages, and to also ensure proper legal registration for all marriages.

Sexual harassment and sexual violence are other manifestations of violence against women that need to be addressed. Despite interviewees stating that this is not a problem in the country, it is necessary to acknowledge that sexual violence and sexual harassment occur both within and outside the family in every society. Certain issues might be considered taboo within a society, and this may explain the denial of such phenomenon, and may contribute to women’s silences with regard to these manifestations of violence; but denial is not an acceptable response to the realities that women face in Azerbaijan, as do women in other parts of the world.

According to some interlocutors, there has been an increase in the number of sex-selective abortions, and that this is a reflection of patriarchal notions relating to the value attached to women and girl-children in society. These sources state that Azerbaijan ranks second among the countries where this practice is prevalent. Unfortunately, I was unable to ascertain statistics or relevant information from the State authorities to confirm such findings.

During my mission, I had the opportunity to visit IDP settlements in Sumgayit and Qaradaq. The conflict in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh region in 1992-1993 which resulted in the occupation of 20% of Azerbaijani territory, has had enormous consequences for the displaced communities, including bodily integrity violations; loss of family members; and loss of material possessions. It is estimated that approximately one million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) - Azerbaijanis from Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh - were forced to flee their homelands. Over half were women and children.

I share the concerns of the CEDAW Committee as regards the vulnerable and marginalized situation of internally displaced communities, especially women and girls, and the challenges of their current living conditions. The Government of Azerbaijan has made efforts to address access to education, employment, health care, psychological support and housing. Despite such efforts, I witnessed and heard distressing accounts of hardships and the challenges of living in camps, dormitories and ‘hotel’ accommodation. I also heard about the distress of women from “martyr families” who are still waiting for the return of their missing family members. The political sensitivities in respect of the issue of the “right to return” of Azerbaijani IDPs, to their regions of origin which are now under occupation, or any other considerations, should not deter the Government from further ensuring that these citizens enjoy the promotion and protection of the full range of human rights, while they wait for the resolution of the peace process.

Despite many positive developments, the issue of limited or the lack of implementation of laws and policies was a consistent issue raised by interviewees, as regards the addressing of violence against women. It was stated, on numerous occasions, that there are no specific implementation mechanisms and strategies which would provide a framework for action, and which would define clearly the roles of each stakeholder, and that would also include monitoring and evaluation mechanisms. During my visit, I was informed about programmatic initiatives and actions, which in my view do not constitute effective responses to the violations of women’s rights generally. Among others, many of the activities being undertaken are not sustainable and include one-off events or activities; they do not include gender specificity; they display a lack of special measures for women, which would require taking into account the interpersonal, institutional and structural aspects of inequality and discrimination which are a cause and consequence of violence; they have goals that aim to achieve formal as opposed to substantive equality, as is mandated by international human rights law; and many mechanisms are non-functional as regards addressing the substantive challenges facing women generally, and women who are victims of violence, in particular.

Other examples of gaps and challenges include:

(1) The inappropriate responses to violence against women as provided by the State authorities. The reluctance of women to report cases of violence was systematically emphasised throughout my meetings. Many reasons were articulated, including the fact that violence against women has been normalised, and even sometimes accepted, by the women themselves, due to the responses of authorities who promote notions of family unity, shame and stigma, which prevent women from breaking the silence. The authorities, including Family Support Centres and the police prefer not to interfere with the institution of the family, as they consider violence against women a private matter which should be solved within the family. The widespread use of mediation to effect reconciliation is promoted as the primary solution to violations of women’s right to a life free of all forms of violence, whether physical, verbal, psychological, sexual or economic.

(2) The lack of functioning of many Family Support Centres. Many of these facilities are unable to provide shelter services or the necessary psycho-social support, including rehabilitation measures which are necessary for the protection and full recovery of women victims of violence. The lack of shelters is alarming and represents a major obstacle in the protection chain. According to information received, only one State shelter is operational in Baku.

(3) The lack of effective implementation of laws and policies, whether in the sphere of violence against women, early marriages, or divorce, among others. The lack of accountability is a crucial aspect in the effective elimination of violence against women, but in most discussions, it was clear that impunity seems to be the norm, for crimes committed against women. Unfortunately, no information was shared with me by State authorities as regards prosecution and punishment of perpetrators of violence against women.

(4) Women have limited access to justice and also to justice itself for violations of rights. In the regions, access to justice for women is even more difficult, due to both geographic location as well as cultural aspects. The systems of redress that currently exist, favour family unity instead of considering the rights of the individual, and thus ignore the notions of protection of victims and accountability of perpetrators. Thus cases of violence tend not to be prosecuted in most instances; protection orders are not granted; and divorce is not easily accessible, even when requested due to violence in the marriage. I was also informed that, despite numerous trainings conducted by the Ministry of Justice, judges do not systematically refer to the new laws on gender equality and domestic violence. Furthermore, I received complaints about the poor quality of legal representation which is available from the state legal aid services. This does result in perceptions of a lack of justice, especially for women who I interviewed in the prison. The hiring of private lawyers by some women, despite having access to a legal aid lawyer, leads to the conclusion that women from precarious socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to have their rights properly defended.

(5) The lack of appointment of new staff who are dedicated to serve as gender focal points in each ministry. The usual practice is the designation of current staff as gender focal points in the different ministries, thereby adding to the existing responsibilities of the staff member. This does not allow for a substantive and holistic focus on the issue of women’s human rights.

(6) The limited efforts towards societal transformation which would address traditional gender roles and stereotypes that continue to limit the personal, social, economic, and political freedom of women in Azerbaijan. Although, some sporadic awareness-raising activities have occurred, focused and sustained attention is crucial, including in the revision of educational curriculum and materials.

(7) I have also noted that despite the efforts towards labour and social protection, including targeted social allowances and assistance mechanisms, the social protection system is inadequate. This has a disproportionate impact in particular for women working in the informal sector, such as those performing agricultural and domestic work for instance. The issue of widespread corruption, particularly affecting State institutions, was repeatedly emphasised as one of the scourges of Azerbaijani society, and was highlighted as a major obstacle to equal access to social services, including in the education and health sectors; and also as regards access to justice.

(8) I was encouraged to hear that the State has been seeking to develop more substantive and cooperative relationships with NGOs. I was informed that among the 3800 registered NGOs, over 120 are working on women’s rights specifically. However, I was also informed about the cumbersome requirements imposed on NGOs, in respect of registration/accreditation processes, and also their reporting obligations to numerous authorities, especially when funded by the State. I have also received allegations of government bias in favour of some NGOs to the exclusion of others, and that sometimes reprisals are experienced by the more independent NGOs.

In conclusion, I would like to again commend the Government of Azerbaijan for the positive developments to date, and to encourage a more substantive and focused approach to addressing the issue of violence against women. Holistic solutions at the law, policy and programmatic levels are needed to address the individual empowerment of women; to acknowledging and addressing the social, economic and cultural barriers that are a reality in the lives of women; and in the development of social transformation initiatives that address the systemic and structural causes of inequality and discrimination, which most often lead to violence against women.

State responsibility to act with due diligence to eliminate violence against women, is an obligation under international human rights law, which the Azerbaijani Government has committed to. The framework for discussing the responsibility of the State must include a focus on both individual due diligence and systemic due diligence. Individual due diligence refers to the obligations a State owes to particular individuals, or groups of individuals, to prevent, protect, punish and provide effective remedies on a specific basis. Individual due diligence also requires States to punish not just the perpetrators, but also those who fail in their duty to respond to the violation. Systemic due diligence refers to the obligations States must take to ensure a holistic and sustained model of prevention, protection, punishment and reparations for acts of violence against women. It is my hope that there will be a deeper and more nuanced discussion among stakeholders on the issue of State responsibility to act with due diligence in efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women.

My findings will be discussed in a comprehensive way in the report I will present to the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2014.”

Ms. Rashida Manjoo (South Africa) was appointed Special Rapporteur on Violence against women, its causes and consequences in June 2009 by the UN Human Rights Council. As Special Rapporteur, she is independent from any government or organization and serves in her individual capacity. Ms. Manjoo is a Professor in the Department of Public Law of the University of Cape Town. Learn more, visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Women/SRWomen/Pages/SRWomenIndex.aspx

For additional information on the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, please visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Women/SRWomen/Pages/SRWomenIndex.aspx