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HUMAN TRAFFICKING: THE OVERLOOKED AND EXPLOITED WOMEN OF AZERBAIJAN – PART I

The Azeri Times

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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.

PART ONE

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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Society

European film festival in Baku: a Dutch cat, a Hungarian horse and a ‘faceless’ French artist

The Azeri Times

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The 9th European Film Festival has officially begun in Baku.

The event is organised by the European Union in Azerbaijan and will end on 21 October, until which time the public is invited to view 19 European films free of charge.

Here are some of the films we recommend:

The documentary film Wild Amsterdam, accompanied by director Mark Verkerk and producer Ignas van Schaick, will be screened at the festival. The film centres around the animals of Amsterdam, but not in a way you might expect: the story is told from the perspective of a cat, who shows us how squirrels, pigeons and waterfowl live in Amsterdam’s canals and parks.

The directors say that the consultation with ecologists and other specialists took half a year by itself. The film is a viewing wonder, dynamic and modern. For example, one scene depicts the retrieval of bicycles from the bottom of the canal with the help of special machinery. The scene looks as if it has been cut right out of a thriller because of how it traumatises the crabs living on the bottom.

The film Kincsem – Bet on Revenge is from Hungary, and also concerns the fate of an animal – a racehorse who belongs to a broke aristocrat forced to earn money through racing. However, the film is not about horseracing, but rather about competition between members of high-class society in the Austrian Empire. The film’s action revolves around the young aristocrat who becomes involved in a dispute with an Austrian officer, whose daughter later falls for the main character.

Barbara, a film by Christian Petzold, is a drama shot in 2012 which takes viewers back to 1980 when Germany was still divided by the Berlin Wall. The main heroine of the film lives in the German Democratic Republic and dreams of leaving. Forced to work in the country and under constant surveillance, she methodically prepares her plan to escape. At first it seems everything will work out and that nobody can prevent her from leaving, including the all-powerful Stasi. However, an inconvenient and unexpected attachment to one of her colleagues jeopardises her escape.

Latvian film Dream Team 1935 by Aigars Grauba was also shot in 2012 and also offers an excursion into the past – to the pre-war period of 1935 when the first European Basketball Championship took place in Geneva. Participation in the championship was a great chance for national teams to go down in sports history. The Latvian team seizes the opportunity, though young trainer Baumanis soon comes to understand that it is far more important to overcome oneself than one’s enemy…

Halima’s Path is the work of Croatian director Arsen Anton Ostoyich, and is dedicated to one of the bloodiest wars of the second half of the 20th century – the war in former Yugoslavia. The action takes place in the post-war years in Bosnia. A woman by the name of Halima who lost her husband and son (though not biological) dreams of finding their remains in order to give them a proper burial. She is only able to do this with the help of DNA analysis. While she is able to find her husband’s remains, she finds it difficult to do so in the case of her son. Halima must then go through some hardship to find the biological mother of her son in order to find him.

The French film See You Up There is also devoted to war and its consequences. This time, the action takes place during World War I. The story begins in the final days of the war, when two young soldiers – an artist from a wealthy family, Edouard, and a former bank employee, Albert – are forced to go to their certain deaths on the orders of a malicious captain. Edouard, whose face has been disfigured, saves Albert, which firmly binds the two friends together: now Edouard is an ‘invisible’ artist, and Albert his impresario.

In addition to film screenings, the festival includes workshops and discussions with European directors.

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Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan a year after the LGBT raids: has anything changed in Europe’s most homophobic country?

The Azeri Times

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Azerbaijani society has never been tolerant toward sexual minorities, but no one expected the cruel and large-scale violence that occurred last year. At least a hundred people were humiliated, beaten and raped. People who were suspected of being gay were blackmailed and warned not to walk in the central streets of Baku. Meydan TV investigated the possible reasons for the police violence immediately after it happened last year and we now return to this topic to find out what has changed in Azerbaijan over the past year.

I felt like I had done something terrible

“I was absolutely desperate. I was leading a repulsive life: I drank a lot, I used drugs,” Ali recalls September 2017 (all names have been changed). He says that the “repulsive” life he led seemed to help him forget what he had experienced for a while: like many other gay Azeris, Ali was detained in a surprise raid in downtown Baku. He spent several days at a police station. It still is not easy for him to talk about what he experienced – in response to every questions he says that many people, for example, transgender people, had an even harder time than he did. “Not only did they call them the filthiest words and beat them, they also shaved their heads, which was the most humiliating thing for them,” Ali says.

Ali had never advertised his sexuality but it became obvious for people around him after police detained him. “I felt like I had done something terrible and that I was persecuted for it. My landlord kicked me out of the apartment I was renting, and my friends and loved ones turned away from me,” Ali recalls.

Ali gradually did manage to return to normal life – there were kind people who helped him while he was looking for a job. Unlike Ali, another gay man who was detained, Murad, had a certain amount of money which helped him flee the country. Murad left immediately after he was released from the police station and now lives in Turkey: “I wanted to move to Norway, but I was denied a visa.”

Murad has not been successful in finding a job and it seems he will have to go back home soon. “Of course I’m afraid, of course I don’t want to go back. I’d stay here if I could. At least there’s an LGBT community in Turkey, and they help each other,” Murad says.

 

Four brave lawyers

According to official statistics, police detained 83 people during the LGBT raids in Baku in September 2017.

“Thirty-three people filed lawsuits for illegal arrest and cruel treatment after they were released,” said Gulnara Mehdiyeva, a representative of the human rights organization Minority Azerbaijan and a member of the local LGBT alliance Nefes (Breath). Gulnara says that apart from physical and moral damages, those detained also incurred material damages:

“They were jailed for different terms, some for 10 or 15 days and some for 20 or 30 days. Many lost their jobs because their employers refused to take them back after their long absence,” Gulnara Mehdiyeva says.

Four lawyers agreed to defend the rights of the LGBT people affected. One of them, Samad Rahimli, says that judges rejected all the complaints. The same 33 people sent complaints to prosecution agencies, but prosecution agencies did not find any criminal wrongdoing.

Azerbaijani rights activist Kamala Aghazadeh believes that lawsuits will not produce results while the country has no law defending LGBT people from discrimination. “Society absolutely needs a law that would guarantee the protection of LGBT rights,” she said. Perhaps, the adoption of such a law would remove Azerbaijan from the list of the most homophobic European countries which Azerbaijan has led for four consecutive years now.

A month after the raids, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks sent a letter to Azerbaijan’s Interior Minister in which he called for “thorough investigations into serious allegations of human rights violations of LGBT persons recently arrested and detained in Baku”.
No reaction followed from the Azerbaijani government.

 

Four suicides and five murders

Samad Ismayilov, the director of Minority Azerbaijan magazine, said that four LGBT people committed suicide in Azerbaijan in 2017. Ismayilov said that specialized organizations recorded five murders which presumably were anti-LGBT hate crimes over the year. He said those were average annual figures.

“However, these are only cases that we have managed to learn about. In reality, there are many more crimes of this kind,” he said. According to Ismayilov, activists were not able to find out even an approximate number of members of the LGBT community in Azerbaijan because most people hid their sexual orientation.

Samad said no raids or large-scale assaults on gays had been recorded in Azerbaijan in 2018, but several trans people were at the police station the other day. “They were summoned to the police, asked several questions and released. However, we do not understand the reason for this interest, nor did we understand it last year,” Samad said.


Produced with the support of the Russian Language News Exchange

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Azerbaijan

Piti, a rich taste of Azerbaijan

The Azeri Times

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Piti is a traditional and delicious dish from the town of Sheki, in Azerbaijan.

It’s a mix of lamb meat, cooked with chick peas, chestnuts and fat. Everything is cooked in a ceramic pot. Lamb meat is the base of many meals, in Azerbaijani cuisine. It can be cooked in a variety of ways and every province or region has its own recipe.

Piti is a specialty of Sheki, an ancient city on the Silk Route, in Azerbaijan. It comprises ingredients such as lamb, saffron and local spices.

Once the dish is on the table there’s still work to do. The broth must be poured into a separate dish. Then some crushed barberry is sprinkled over it.

Zamir Salahov, owner of Cennet Bagi Restaurant, says: “The piti is one of the most ancient specialties of Sheki. It was created by local peasants because it allowed them to eat as much as they wanted. Nowadays everyone loves it.”

Finally, the contents of the ceramic pot have to be mashed and mixed before you can enjoy this culinary delight.

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