Human Trafficking: The Overlooked and Exploited Women of Azerbaijan - Part I
From 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to 10 December, Human Rights Day, the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign is a time to galvanize action to end violence against women and girls around the world. This year, the UNiTE Campaign will mark the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence under the overarching theme, “Leave No One Behind: End Violence against Women and Girls”— reflecting the core principle of the transformative 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
As part of the 16 Days of Activism, Meydan TV is publishing an in-depth look at human trafficking in Azerbaijan. This is the first of four parts.
Overlooked – From a Girl to a Young Woman
A young woman in rural Azerbaijan is neglected by her family and married off to a local man who abuses her. She decides to leave home to find a job so that she can support herself and her child. But she is deceived and held against her will by traffickers – forced into prostitution in Turkey. A survivor, she returns to Azerbaijan only to be further traumatized by the government agencies meant to help her and a society that regards her as damaged goods.
Her name is Khayala – or “dream” in Azeri. Khayala’s story is a composite based on actual accounts gathered during research on the exploitation of women from and in Azerbaijan. Khayala represents women in Azerbaijan whose treatment by family and society creates a breeding ground for human trafficking.
While the true scale of human trafficking is impossible to quantify because of its secretive nature, the Global Slavery Index estimates that there are currently 45.8 million people living under some form of modern slavery, including sexual exploitation, forced labor, forced marriage, and the sale and exploitation of children. Contrary to claims by state-sponsored media, Azerbaijani citizens are currently being exploited both in Azerbaijan and abroad. According to the United States Government’s 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, Azerbaijan is a source, transit point, and destination country for the trafficking of men, women and children.
“We, as women in society, have a very dangerous situation. Every one of us,” said Mehriban Zeynalova in an interview with Meydan TV. Zeynalova is the Director of Clean World Public Union, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) and women’s shelter in Azerbaijan that provides services to female survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking. Khayala is emblematic of these women and the situation of women in Azerbaijan.
Born in rural Azerbaijan in a region far west of Baku, Khayala was raised by her mother and father along with a younger brother. Her father was a farmer and the son of a farmer. Her mother worked hard at home, caring for her children and her husband’s elderly parents. She had a thick, white scar on her face just below her right eye – punishment for conceiving only female children for the first four years of marriage. Khayala worked hard at home, too. Her parents took her out of school at age sixteen. There was too much to be done at home and on the farm.
Women’s rights activist and journalist Arzu Geybullayeva says that an exploration of the trafficking of women in Azerbaijan “must begin with a conversation about gender inequality.” Khayala’s childhood and early adulthood highlight how some accepted “traditional” values negatively affect women in Azerbaijan and put them at higher risk for exploitation.
Deeply entrenched stereotypes and gender roles limit girls’ education. Like Khayala, many Azerbaijani girls are encouraged to prioritize housework over schoolwork, or are removed from school altogether. According to former UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona, “heavy and unequal care responsibilities are a major barrier to gender equality and to women’s equal enjoyment of human rights, and, in many cases, condemn women to poverty.”
What little money Khayala’s family earned went to basic needs and her brother’s school and tutoring fees. He would be the one to inherit their small parcel of land and carry on the family name. Khayala would be married off.
Shortly after her eighteenth birthday, Khayala was given to a man in her village. Her slender shoulders barely held up the weight of her fluorescent white gown – a cumbersome heap of synthetic fibers and rhinestones. In the Azerbaijani tradition, a single red ribbon was tied around her waist – a symbol of her virginity and the color of the blood expected to stain her new husband’s bed sheets that night.
The lower status of women has been woven into Azerbaijani culture, expressed through tradition and language. Women are expected to be virgins when they marry, as are women in many other countries. Men, on the other hand, are not expected to remain chaste before marriage. The Azeri language uses a verb when a woman marries [ərə vermək] literally meaning, “to be given to a husband.” Azerbaijani proverbs, or atalar sözləri (literally, “fathers’ words”), reveal a historical acceptance, even encouragement, of violence against women:
“Qızını döyməyən, dizini döyər.”
“He/She who does not beat his/her daughter will beat his/her knees.”
Generally accepted meaning: If you do not beat your daughter into conforming to cultural norms, you will end up slapping your knees in frustration.
These kinds of expressions reinforce gender inequality and influence critical family decisions about the lives of girls and women, as well as decisions by lawmakers in parliament.
A month after they were married, Khayala’s new husband hit her for the first time. She knew that this would not be the last time, because she had seen her father beat her mother countless times throughout her childhood. As time went on and abuse by Khayala’s husband escalated, her mother told her to keep her head down and her mouth shut. Her mother-in-law slapped her for speaking openly of such things. Khayala called the police for help once, but the officer who answered the call criticized her and said it would be inappropriate for him to get involved in family matters. He told her not to call again.
Domestic violence in Azerbaijan, like human trafficking, is a taboo topic. Member of Parliament Ganira Pashayeva described the Azerbaijani attitude towards domestic violence during a Parliament discussion on the need for a law on domestic violence in 2006. Legislation addressing domestic violence in Azerbaijan was not passed until 2010.
“[There is a saying in Azerbaijan] only the corpse of the bride might leave her husband’s home. Hence, the girl endures the torture, keeps her mouth shut. We even, at times, criticize the woman for complaining about her husband. We tell her she should she have endured,” she said. Though this was said nearly ten years ago, women’s rights activists in Azerbaijan say that, especially in rural areas, this traditional mindset endures.
With no support system, Khayala’s instinct to fight back against her husband faded, and her self-esteem plummeted. She wanted to leave, but didn’t know how. Her husband, unemployed and drinking heavily most days, continued to be violent throughout her pregnancy and after the birth of their first child. He couldn’t find work, but he refused to leave the region, or even the village, to seek employment.
Meydan TV spoke with an expert on gender and poverty eradication in Azerbaijan who asked to remain anonymous for fear of government reprisal. She said that harsh economic conditions and an increase in unemployment create a breeding ground for domestic violence. She predicts that the current economic crisis in Azerbaijan will exacerbate the already heavy burden of widespread poverty in the country, with detrimental effects on women.
“In the coming months, Azerbaijan will feel the full consequences [of the crisis],” she said in an interview.
As a result of government corruption, Azerbaijanis do not have basic public services that would offer poverty relief. According to the 2016 Nations in Transit report published by Freedom House, a “de facto system of expropriation of state resources for the ruling elite persisted” in Azerbaijan in 2015. Meydan TV previously reported on the effects that the Azerbaijani government’s lavish spending and lack of social assistance programs have on the population, particularly on impoverished women with children.
Khayala was hurt and going hungry most days, and soon her child would be, too. Unwilling to doom herself or her child, she decided to leave to find work. She set out to save them.
Matanat Azizova is the Director of the Women’s Crisis Center, now based in Prague. She fled Azerbaijan because of what she describes as personal and professional persecution by the government.
In a video interview with Meydan TV, Azizova spoke about her work in human trafficking prevention and rehabilitation with women in Azerbaijan. She described a previous project in which she interviewed survivors of human trafficking from Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. She said that there was a trend among women who were trafficked.
“They were all previously victims of family violence,” Azizova said.
Domestic violence and sexual abuse are related to human trafficking in a number of ways, according to experts in the field. Ongoing abuse is motivation for women to leave their homes. Economic insecurity and lack of services creates a dangerous set of circumstances. As Khayala’s story illustrates, women who are motivated to leave home but have no financial resources are vulnerable to exploitation. They are more likely to migrate for work, to perform more dangerous jobs and to work for lower wages.
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