February 28 2013

What a woman is not allowed..in a rich country

27/2/2013 - International Women's Day was always like any other. "Cleaning, cooking, washing, feeding the chickens, planting vegetables," is how Leila describes her daily routine locked inside a yard surrounded by concrete walls. She never had a say in the matter. This year is different.

Thirty-something Leila is a married mother of six living in conditions of poverty on the outskirts of Ganja, north Azerbaijan. She leads a monotonous life in the role of a traditional housewife.  Being there is neither her wish nor decision. In fact, Leila was never allowed to make a single decision in her life.

17% of women in Azerbaijan have no say in everday household decisions - UNIFEM (2010)

Azerbaijan is a rich country, mainly owing to its massive oil and natural gas resources. The country's currency reserves exceeded 46 billion US dollars in 2012.

The government can be credited for bringing forward improvements such as free education and equal rights for women. Rape and domestic violence are outlawed, equal participation regulated, reproductive rights guaranteed, women's leadership encouraged.

Regrettably, the masses do not enjoy an equal share of the country’s wealth. The country's social advancements appear out of reach for Leila. She is not an exception. Almost one in five women in Azerbaijan have no say in everyday household decisions. 

In human rights reports societal discrimination is listed as the problem. Academics analyse the reasons behind it, organisations identify the factors that cause it, news agencies report on it, and the public is shocked by it. Meanwhile Leila, who can't define it, lives in the middle of it.

Leila grew up in a village near Ganja in a poor conservative family, far from the abundance of opportunities and resources, more easily available to her urban peers. "I was enrolled in school, but I couldn't go," she says. Her father decided it was better for her to learn how to take care of a family and maintain a household, just like her mother. Leila didn't get a say. Leila is illiterate.

Favouring the education of boys is common with poor families in rural Azerbaijan. Elders consider school unnecessary, even morally corrupting, for the future wives and mothers. In her late teens, Leila married a local boy, started a family and moved to the nearest big town - Ganja. Married life did little to improve Leila's life. Her husband, equally conservative and traditional as her father, believes in forbidding his wife from leaving the house, depriving her of money and controlling every aspect of her life. Neighbours often hear shouting and loud noises from her house. Leila never reports domestic violence.

Social workers from the SOS Social Centres Genja "genuinely care for famiilies" © K. Ilievska
Social workers from the SOS Social Centre Ganja "genuinely care for famiilies" © K. Ilievska
Misplaced conventional wisdom led to poverty

"There are many women like her," says Mehriban, a social worker at  the SOS Social Centre Ganja. "Some don't recognize abuse. Others do, but they all feel morally obliged to be devoted wives." In Ganja, SOS Children's Villages helps over 150 such disadvantaged families to improve their living conditions and to exercise their rights –which the state has enshrined in law.

Poverty brought about as a result of a lock of job opportunities is said to be the biggest problem for these families. Despite women having more opportunities to find basic jobs –like cleaning – their husbands determine if they choose to live in poverty or allow their wives to leave the house to work.  Leila's husband chose a life of poverty for her and their children.

SOS Children's Villages was informed of Leila's plight when it was discovered that poverty became a serious threat to the wellbeing of her children. Food, clothing, school stationary and construction materials were supplied to provide much needed respite.

Overtime her children also received tutoring to help them catch up at school. Leila was then given the opportunity to join a counselling group for women led by female social workers at Ganja’s SOS Social Centre. This opened up a whole new world. Minor things like engaging with others were life changing.

“The group is a safe place for women," says Mehriban. "On International Women's Day, like every other day, they can share everything, from recipes to family problems. Together we learn and try to find solutions." Mehriban isn't sure what persuaded Leila's husband to let her attend. "For sure, the fact that we're all women in the group was helpful. Then, I think it's because we helped fix their home, gave them food, taught their children. He realised we genuinely care for families."

Changing mind-sets and breaking barriers will take time. It's questionable if Leila will ever fully get out of her prison. Because her daughters now attend school, she knows that they will be in a better position to exercise their rights and determine for themselves what they are allowed to do with their lives.

The name of the individual involved has been changed to protect her privacy.

Readers who found this interesting have also read:

Destitue overnight - the plight of Zimbabwe