Efforts to elevate status of women in Azerbaijan not satisfactory because of post-war problems



Efforts by the Government of Azerbaijan to elevate the status of women had not been satisfactory in view of the acute post-war problems facing the country, the representative of that country told the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this morning.

A peace agreement and withdrawal from the occupied areas of the country were a prerequisite to solving the problems faced by the women of Azerbaijan, the Chief of the Division of Humanitarian Policy of the Office of the President of Azerbaijan, Fatma Abdullazadeh, said in response to questions posed by the 23-member Committee monitoring compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women,

Elaborating on the problems faced by her Government in providing adequate reproductive health care for women, she said that although some progress had been made in the setting up of family planning clinics throughout the country, the problems of the widespread use of abortion and other issues related to women's fertility still needed to be addressed.

As the Committee concluded its consideration of Azerbaijan's initial report on the implementation of the Convention, its Chairperson, Salma Khan, expert from Bangladesh, said that despite a ravaged economy, the Government of Azerbaijan had shown a great sense of commitment towards implementing the Convention, and in initiating a national plan of action. She was particularly disturbed by the level of poverty and the exceptionally high rate of infant and maternal mortality. A sound health-care policy was lacking and should be addressed in an effective manner.

* The meeting number of Press Release WOM/1005 of 20 January should have been the 361st. Meeting numbers of subsequent press releases should be adjusted accordingly.

Women's Anti-Discrimination Committee - 1a - Press Release WOM/1011 367th Meeting (AM) 23 January 1998

While she fully understood the difficulties faced by a post-war government, women became even more vulnerable in those times, requiring greater protection from exploitation and discrimination. Despite the wide range of laws intended to protect them, the actual status of women in Azerbaijan was "far from satisfactory". Although the secular nature of the country would help to strengthen the Government's anti-discrimination policies, she expressed concern that the overriding influence of religious practice and of religious leaders might further subject women to discrimination.

The Committee will meet again at 3 p.m today to hear the responses to their earlier comments on Croatia's initial report.

Committee Work Programme

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to continue its consideration of the initial report of Azerbaijan under Article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women Convention. The delegation of Azerbaijan will respond to questions posed by the Committee following the presentation of that country's report on 20 January. (For details, see press releases WOM/1005 and WOM/1006 of 20 January.)

Response of Azerbaijan

FATMA ABDULLAZADEH, Chief of the Division of Humanitarian Policy, Office of the President of Azerbaijan, began her response by providing additional information on the "foundation of the State". Azerbaijan was a secular State. No shariah law existed; the courts were secular and there were no religious courts. The Constitution guaranteed freedom of belief; people practised a number of religions in the country. The Constitution provided for non- interference in the private lives of citizens.

The division of power in the State was enshrined in the Constitution, she said. Describing the structure of the court system, she said it was hierarchical and all courts were subject to the country's Supreme Court. The country was in the process of setting up a constitutional court in the near future. Women were not prohibited form taking cases to court. Statistics showed that women made use of the court as often as men. The Deputy President of the Supreme Court was a woman and eight other members of the Court were women.

She went on to say that the Convention had been translated into local languages of the country and had even been published in newspapers along with the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Responding to questions on the setting up of a Committee on Women's Affairs, she said that it had been set up to coordinate activities of government bodies and of non-governmental organizations that were implementing the Convention and the Beijing Platform for Action, adopted by the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995). Issues related to the rights of women were disseminated in special women's publication. They focused on enhancing women's legal literacy and on preparing guidelines for a national policy for women.

The education of women was constantly monitored and evaluated by the State, she said. Private education still existed and enabled those who had not attained a certain level to have private education. Private universities also existed. The educational sector was still being developed. Private

institutions were funded by charitable organizations and by the students. New technology in the educational sphere was needed.

She next took up questions related to article 1 of the Convention, specifically concerning guidelines that were in place for avoiding discrimination, and on the fundamental concept of discrimination. In all legislative acts and laws adopted by the National Assembly, discrimination against women was understood precisely in the context of the first article of the Convention. However, it must be recognized that Azerbaijan was a very unusual country, in which every seventh inhabitant was a refugee.

It was a country where a mass of people were living in camps or tents with insufficient food and medical care, she continued. They had only one desire, and that was to return to their homeland. In the course of analysing the aspects of gender discrimination, such circumstances should be taken into account. Such a serious and persistent problem clearly affected all aspects of life in the State. The solution to the problem was first and foremost the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the territory of Nagorny Karabakh. That was a prerequisite to solving the problems of discrimination in order to fully comply with article 1 of the Convention.

Turning to questions related to article 5, on social and cultural patterns that lead to discrimination, she said the problem of stereotypes was deeply rooted. Such stereotypes in the past particularly concerned the family. However, women today participated at a fairly high level in the social and cultural life of the country. They were well represented in the areas of education, culture, and health -- indicators that their overall status was fairly high. For example, women comprised some 50 per cent of all doctors in the country and 34.5 per cent of educators at the university level. That percentage was even greater for the middle and lower schools. In the cultural sphere, a large percentage of women worked in libraries and various cultural educational institutes, and theatres.

Taking up questions pertaining to article 2, on legal and administrative measures undertaken to eliminate discrimination, she said that none of the legislation of Azerbaijan contained provisions infringing on the rights of women. Although the sentencing of women to death was a fairly rare occurrence, the death penalty for women had been repealed. On 22 January, the President of Azerbaijan initiated new legislation repealing the death sentence altogether. Furthermore, it had not been applied since July 1993 for either men or women, despite the fact that the country had been subjected to very complex and conflicting situations that in 1993 nearly brought it to the brink of war.

The efforts aimed at combating drug and alcohol abuse did not distinguish between men and women, she said. Criminal prosecution or fines could be imposed on such activities as the illegal production, acquisition, storage and sale of narcotics, as well as the growth of narcotic-containing substances. In the case of incarceration, women were segregated from men. Alcoholism was not a very extensive phenomenon in Azerbaijan, and did not exist as a significant problem among women. It, therefore, did not require a corresponding programme or government measure to regulate it.

Responding to a series of questions concerning prostitution, she said that it was not covered in the criminal code. Rather, it was regulated by the administrative code, and drew such penalties as fines. By the terms of a government legislation, prostitutes were sent to "closed hospitals" where any disease could be diagnosed and treated.

She said that women played a fairly large role in the cultural life of the country. Taking up article 3 concerning the advancement of women, she cited a number of statistics as evidence of women's involvement. Each year, the State held festivals and other events in collaboration with artistic organizations, aimed solely at encouraging women's creative potential. Special festivals and competitions were organized for female musicians and composers, and special auctions were held to sell women's art work and promote such creative expression. Special programmes were also aimed at publishing women's written works, including scientific research relating to women's problems.

Promoting economic welfare was a complex undertaking, she said. However, consideration was being given to the Committee's suggestion of creating a special women's bank or a special system of micro-credit to encourage small businesses headed by women and to promote their training in that regard. Also being considered was a system to promote the establishment of companies staffed mostly by women.

To further concerns related to stereotypes, she said that the Government's legislation did not distinguish between men and women, and, therefore, did not require bringing it further in line with the Convention. Furthermore, there was a mechanism in the Government for analysing bills that concerned compliance with the Convention or which might affect women's rights or be interpreted to be discriminatory.

Several questions had been raised concerning the Government's protection of motherhood, specifically whether that protection was discriminatory, she recalled. One question concerned the State's orientation towards motherhood - - did it perceive women as mothers, first and foremost, or as individuals? The Soviet period strongly encouraged women as mothers, even calling mothers with more than 10 children, "mother heroines". That policy was now being restructured. However, it should not be restructured in a way that deprived women from having as many children as they wished. Family planning programmes encouraged two or three children per family. The focus of such programmes, however, was on the development of the woman's individuality. The higher the status women attained in society, the less she would focus purely on motherhood. Since the current legislation flowed from the long period before it which encouraged motherhood, the formation of new machinery in that regard was a long-term process.

Although the legislation did not encourage stereotyping, programmes, although somewhat weak, were being adopted in schools to encourage new thinking about the family, she said. In the Soviet Union, women were urged to be fully represented in society and the economic sector, although no attempts were made to reduce their tasks in raising the children and caring for the family. A structure to ease their situation was not very well developed in Soviet times, nor was it very well developed presently.

Developing that infrastructure today, given the complicated economic conditions, was proving to be very difficult, she said. Although nurseries were being opened in refugee camps, and new structures were being created to provide for the social protection of women, further initiatives were required. Despite certain achievements, a lot of problems remained in the area of balancing women's various roles while protecting their rights.

On the problems of exploitation of prostitution, she said there was no machinery to compensate women who had suffered from such exploitation. That issue needed further study and should be addressed.

Responding to questions on article 7, on discrimination against women in political and public life, she said the number of women participating in politics had increased from the Soviet period. The present 12 per cent representation of women in the country's Parliament was high compared to other countries in that region. It was a significant achievement, considering the country's history and the fact that the recent elections were the first since its independence. Women also headed complex undertakings such as the Energy Commission and the Natural Resources Commission. They also held high-level positions in the legal system such as in the Ministry of Justice.

Addressing discrimination in the field of education, she said she had provided statistics on female choices of specific fields of study. The extent of girls and women's education in technical vocational institutions did not comply with the requirements of the Convention. Such technical vocational areas as construction, however, were not chosen by young girls. However, large numbers of girls and women were studying computer science.

To improve the reproductive health care of young girls and women, the Government had initiated a programme to set up family planning centres in the capital and in six other areas throughout the country, she said. Doctors had been trained in reproductive health. Elaborating on contraception programmes, she confirmed that the mortality rate of women in childbirth had grown over the last few years. She identified problems that influenced the increase in the number of home births. Health care was a priority for the Government. Attempts were being made to provide the poor with health services.

One of the problems confronting the health sector was the widespread use of abortion and related issues affecting women's fertility, she continued. Unfortunately, abortion was one of the basic means of family planning in Azerbaijan. Although it was a negative factor, it was not being addressed for the time being in the face of other pressing problems in the health sector. Other problems concerned contagious diseases, including tuberculosis. In the last year, the health sector had begun to deal with cases of HIV/AIDS. All the patients to date have been foreigners.

She went on to say that in order to address the problem of access to land for rural women, a special law had been passed to facilitate increased distribution of land to people living in rural areas, including women. Loans were also being made available to assist in improving the country's agricultural sector. Control over land could give rural women higher status in the country's economic sector. Rural women were also being assisted through cooperatives and improved overall access to certain services. Despite those efforts, they remained disadvantaged, partly as a consequence of the impact of the adverse effect of the demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank on the agricultural sector, as well as on the economy as a whole.

In general, the efforts to assist women in the areas of agriculture, medical services and education had not been satisfactory, she said. The problems were very acute and had been addressed partially. There was only one solution to all the problems faced by the country -- a peace agreement and the withdrawal of the occupied areas of the country. But, she stressed, even then, not all the problems would be solved since large parts of those areas were "dead zones" -- no longer suitable for habitation. The women from the occupied areas wanted to take matters into their own hands, to return to their homes. They had informed the Government that they no longer wanted humanitarian assistance; they could take control of their lives and return to their homes in full view of the world, with media coverage.

Discussion of Response

An expert welcomed the responses to the questions the Committee had raised on Azerbaijan's report, particularly the new information that the country was a secular State. She asked if the Constitution was drafted along the lines of the Turkish Constitution that had set up that secular State. The dialogue between the Committee and the delegation had produced some positive results, particularly the proposal to consider setting up a special bank for women. It was encouraging to see that the Committee would have a direct influence on the country's policy for the advancement of women.

She agreed that the level of women's representation in the country's Parliament was a significant achievement. More important to consider, however, was whether those representatives were working for the benefit of women. More vigourous and more urgent efforts were needed to change the situation of women refugees. It was also important to improve cooperation with non-governmental organizations to support the Government's efforts. She was not convinced by the responses on the issue of what was discriminatory and what was not as it related to policies and approaches to women's rights in present and past period's of Azerbaijan history. It was possible, for example, to eliminate any negative effects of Soviet policy in a short period of time.

The country's Commission for Equality should be supported by national policies and programmes to promote equality, she continued. Furthermore, more vigorous measures were needed to bridge the gap between highly educated women and the rest of the female population in the country. The Committee looked forward to more progress when Azerbaijan's next report was presented.

Another expert said she was satisfied that there was a considerable basis on which to improve the conditions of women and promote their status. That foundation existed in laws, in the secular nature of the State, as well as in the field of education. Women had attained much in education, and considerable institutional and legal structures were in place. However, sometimes that kind of situation could actually slow the implementation of the Convention because there was a tendency of the positive achievements to hide things that were not so readily visible, such as indirect discrimination and the presence of de facto inequality.

Such problems had emanated from a number of factors, including the long- time presence of the Soviet policy of "double-burdening" women with significant public and private responsibilities, she said. It was also possible that the present policies could lead to a backlash because they had actually "tired" women over the years. Sometimes that backlash might be joined by conservative religious sectors seeking solace in post-revolutionary times. Such conservative influences and backlashes had a way of creeping up in such societies if they were not stemmed before they had a chance to set things back.

While she praised the Government for frankly reporting on women's issues, she also encouraged the Government to take stock of the situation with a critical mind that entailed a gender-sensitive analysis. Much work could be done in the area of cultural change, in increasing the political representation of women and by incorporating gender-equality issues on the political agenda of non-governmental organizations. In that regard, the Government's cooperation with a wide range of such organizations in Azerbaijan was encouraged, given their potential for bringing about significant change aimed at the elimination of discrimination.

Another expert reiterated the suggestion to strengthen cooperation between the Government and non-governmental organizations. The country's call for assistance from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) was heeded and endorsed. Congratulating the delegation of Azerbaijan on the abolition of the death penalty, she said that it was a major decision, which would contribute towards respecting the right to life.

Another expert sought clarification to the reply relating to article 6, specifically on the illegality of prostitution and the transfer of prostitutes to "closed hospitals".

Ms. ABDULLAZADEH (Azerbaijan) said that the legislation neither contained nor envisaged any punishment for prostitution. However, if there was indication or proof that a woman had been exploited or was involved in prostitution, she was sent to closed treatment centres exclusively for the observance of the existence of infectious diseases. After a treatment period, she could leave the treatment centre without facing any punitive measures. There were measures to punish those people who used women as subject of exploitation and brought them into prostitution, "turning women into sources of income", such as the organizers of brothels. Such people were held responsible and were criminally prosecuted.

The expert said that while she appreciated the explanation, it was a very complex issue and was very difficult to adopt legislation that covered all the aims of article 6. Nevertheless, it was imperative to draft legislation that was effective and non-discriminatory and which respected the rights of all persons. Protecting women victims of exploitation or trafficking was a complex process, about which Azerbaijan should provide all relevant information in its next report to the Committee. Both legal and illegal immigration was used as an opportunity to exploit trafficking in women. Such practice was being studied by the European Union.

Statement by Chairperson

The Chairperson of the Committee, SALMA KHAN, expert from Bangladesh, expressed her appreciation to the Government of Azerbaijan for attempting to focus on human rights in general, and women's rights in particular. It was impressive that Azerbaijan had ratified the Convention shortly after its independence, and without any reservations. Furthermore, there was a wide range of laws protecting the rights of women. Despite legislative guarantees, however, the de facto status of women was far from satisfactory.

Although she fully understood the difficulties faced by a government as consequence of war and the seizure of territory, women became more vulnerable in those times, requiring greater protection from exploitation and discrimination, she said. While the Government took into account the new role of women following independence, the gains under the Soviet system should not be eroded. The secular nature of the State would help the Government strengthen the legal and social policies already under way. She sought more information about the de facto situation of women in Azerbaijan.

She said her country of origin, Bangladesh, had a secular Constitution. However, in reality, women were still subject to discrimination in particular areas of their lives due to the overriding influence of religious practice and of religious leaders. Given that religion had assumed far greater importance in Azerbaijan than in many countries of the former Soviet Union, more information on the influence of religion was requested in the next report.

She was particularly disturbed by the level of poverty and the exceptionally high rate of infant and maternal mortality. The rate was much higher than in Bangladesh, a very poor and undeveloped country with a higher level of illiteracy than Azerbaijan.

In the economic sphere, she said that the Government should give serious consideration to improving poverty. What kinds of affirmative action and temporary measures were being undertaken to ensure a better economic life for women, especially
women refugees? she asked. Positive steps included the implementation of the programmes that had been introduced by the IMF and the World Bank, and the renewed consideration of a special bank for women. Even in extreme poverty, women were able to make progress. Micro-credit had to be without collateral. It was important to recognize that a sustainable basis for economic growth, rather than welfare measures, would benefit women.

The very low level of health care in the country, despite a very high percentage of female health workers and high literacy rate, was troubling, she said. A sound health-care policy was lacking and should be addressed in an effective manner. The participation of women in the labour force, comprising some 45 per cent, and their very significant contributions in art culture, literacy, and in the Parliament, was impressive. Such participation would contribute in a very significant way to elevating the status of women. Despite a ravaged economy, the Government had shown a great sense of commitment towards implementing the Convention and in initiating a national plan of action.