Last Updated: Thursday, 24 April 2014, 11:39 GMT

Fears for Unschooled Girls' Future in Azerbaijan

Publisher Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Publication Date 18 March 2011
Cite as Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Fears for Unschooled Girls' Future in Azerbaijan, 18 March 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4d884f59c.html [accessed 25 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Politicians in Azerbaijan are worried that poverty and prejudices are forcing young women to miss out on education, thus limiting their future opportunities.

In Soviet times, Azerbaijani women had the same access to university as men but since independence in 1991, experts say discrimination has returned.

Kebuter Qasimova, was top of her class at school in the village of Shingedulan and dreamed of studying law in Baku. Her mother, however, could not afford to support her and, when she was just 16, gave her away in marriage to a man 12 years her senior.

"We lost my father early on," Qasimova said. "My mother was left with six children to cope with. I was the oldest, and she gave me away when I was young so as to make her life easier," she said.

Now aged 29 with four children, Qasimova says her husband beats and abuses her and drinks too much, yet she has no choice but to put up with it.

"It's good for a woman to be educated and have a job," she said. "Women like that are autonomous, they don't depend on anyone, and they aren't forced to tolerate abuse from their husband for the sake of a bit of bread. It's sad my mother didn't understand that."

There is concern at rising drop-out rates among adolescent girls, which cut short any hope that they could go on to further education or a good job.

Early last year, Azerbaijan's parliament passed a new education law underlining the mandatory need for everyone to complete nine years of schools education, but education experts say that is only half the battle.

Take the case of Aynur Ahmadova, from the village of Hemyeli in Shemakhi district, who stopped attending school regularly after five years. Now 22, she can only just read and write.

But Ahmadova does have "proof" that she completed her education.

"Everyone knows everyone in the village, so my father got the school head to keep me on the register until the end of year nine, so that I'd get the certificate," she explained. "I was actually looking after the livestock and working on our plot, which took up a lot of time so that I couldn't really go to school at all."

She added, "My father always said girls didn't need learning – they needed to marry and have children. And he married me off as soon as I turned 18."

Experts say there is much less monitoring of school attendance by girls like Ahmadova than there used to be.

"In Soviet times, if a child missed school for a few days it was considered an emergency, and the executive agencies and the education system would into action," Govhar Bakhshaliyeva, director of the Institute of Oriental Studies, recalled. "The reasons for the child's absence would be seriously investigated, and the child would be returned to school. This serious approach is now lacking."

There is a clear link between girls dropping out of school and the rate of early marriage, experts say.

"After the 1930s, women in every province of Azerbaijan, even in the remotest places, were able to free themselves from the fetters of ignorance and lack of education. Azerbaijani women held senior positions and became [parliamentary] deputies," Gultekin Hajiyeva, one of 20 female members of Azerbaijan's parliament, told IWPR.

"Yet now, in the 21st century, we have gone back to our old problems. Once again, girls in the villages aren't being allowed to go to school, and are being married off young. We often hear of girls committing suicide after they're taken out of school by their parents, or given away to a husband. Early marriage is the main reason for girls missing out on education. And something needs to be done about it."

It is hard to gauge the extent of early marriage, since such weddings are often conducted only according to the Muslim rites, and are not officially registered. But some indication is given by figures from the national statistics agency showing that 17,000 children were born out of legal wedlock last year, 3,000 more than in 2009. At least seven out of ten cases involved mothers aged between 16 and 18.

Mark Hereward, head of the Azerbaijan office of the United Nations children's agency UNICEF, says studies by his organisation indicate that one-third of women now aged between 20 and 24 got married before they were 18.

These concerns are confirmed by Sadaqat Qahramanova, deputy head of the government committee that deals with women and children, who said, "The statistics show that early, unofficial marriages are increasing every year…. It means that large numbers of young women who are married off at a young age permanently lose out on their chance of an education. The main responsibility lies with the parents. Girls of 14, 15 or 16 are not ready for marriage. They are just children."

Malahat Ibrahimqizi, a member of parliament and head of the Women Leaders group, is amongst those arguing for new legislation that would force parents to keep their daughters in school.

Deputy education minister Irada Huseynova indicated that the administration would not back such proactive legislation.

"Of course, there are isolated cases where parents won't allow their daughters to complete their secondary education and marry them off. But it isn't a widespread problem," she said. "And in any case, if parents do decide to remove their child from school, we can't do anything about it. We don't have the right to do something that's against their wishes."

Women like Ahmadova fear that attitudes like this will condemn future generations to lose out as she did.

"My whole childhood involved intolerable labour –the chickens, the livestock, the crops, gathering the harvest. And then my teenage years were filled with family [marriage] worries," she said. "Now I won't discover anything in this life. It will just be cooking, housework and children. If only my children – especially my little girl – could study, become real people, and find out about the world."

Samira Ahmedbeyli is a staff reporter with IWPR in Azerbaijan. 

Copyright notice: © Institute for War & Peace Reporting

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