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Domestic violence is a taboo topic in Azerbaijan. Every attempt to discuss issues that touch the private, family realm is perceived as a threat to the country's national identity

18/08/2009 -  Arzu Geybullayeva Baku

Domestic violence is an issue of grave concern, especially in countries that do not have specific laws addressing this matter. Azerbaijan being one of such countries so far has failed to implement policies to combat domestic violence. It seems that the country is torn between those who support the bill and those who are completely against it, arguing that once the law is adopted, divorce rates will soar, the traditional family institution will fall into pieces, and women will no longer sustain the cultural attributes attached to this gender.

What is the problem?

Domestic violence in Azerbaijan is a taboo subject. No one talks about it. Its general understanding is that it is a private matter and thus it should be settled privately within the family institution. If a woman were subject to violence, she would prefer staying home and dealing with the problem on her own (which usually means assuring herself that she has done something wrong) refraining from even telling her own family.

The reasoning? Well, it is very simple- the head of the household in Azerbaijan is always a man (at least in 99% of the families), thus putting him under pressure and spotlight of criticism jeopardizes the woman as well as her children. Indeed once the secret is out, it unleashes a number of other problems, one of which is further beating and humiliation, surely done with one aim only- to teach that woman a lesson not to report on her husband again.

In other instances, if a woman does decide to report the case, she is further harassed by the local police station. The response given to her is usually the same- "you must have done something wrong otherwise why would he beat you?" So, with further sense of shame and humiliation, the woman returns home, only to endure further pain at best, or beating at worst. And even if her case does reach the court, she has no place to go - unless her own family takes her back. There are no shelters.

She also has to face the aftermath- divorce (a practice widely spread across the country and considered an end to a woman's life, as she cannot re-marry) and the judgmental looks of neighbors and the community.

The existing criminal code covering physical violence under its general provisions does not cover domestic violence per se. Neither the code nor the legal system mention protection order, shelter or special police departments trained to deal with victims of such acts.

There are no statistics indicating the scale of violence committed. The Ministry of Internal Affairs keeps the records it receives from the police offices country-wide. According to the data at hand (the most recent from 2006), 4,823 cases were registered as criminal offenses committed against women; 1,983 women were registered as victims of violence.

The draft law

Local NGOs as well as the State Committee for Family, Women and Children Issues (the central body to implement policies regarding gender equality) agree that there is a need for a law to combat this problem. However, the process towards achieving this goal has been rather slow. While it was included into the working plan of the national parliament in the fall and spring sessions of 2008 (the draft was sent to the parliament in 2007) it was not discussed. Talking to local experts over the last few weeks, there is general atmosphere of mutual consent that the law will be passed in the upcoming fall session (2009) of the parliament.

So why has the law not been passed?

While there are few reasons as to why this law is yet to be passed, according to many one key factor has been the mentality problem in the capital as well as in regions of the country. "Any issue pertaining upon the private sphere/ family is regarded as a way to change national identity ... The law on combating domestic violence is perceived as something that is going to shake-up the family notion that is so precious in Azerbaijan" says Aysel Vezir, a researcher and expert on gender equality in Azerbaijan.

Combined with the backwardness of the male parliament members, the picture gets clearer. During the national parliament session dedicated to the discussion of the declaration on violence against women and combating domestic violence, several negative comments were raised. "I don't see the problem of domestic violence in Azerbaijan. Excuse me for my language, but our men are not so dishonest and inhumane to beat their wives" said Valeh Aleskerov. Another MP, Xanhuseyn Kazimli while accepting the existence of domestic violence in the world, strongly believed that "if we are discussing this matter here today, it does not necessarily mean that Azerbaijan is in need of such discussion".

However, there are those in parliament who strongly support this law and are pushing for its adoption. However, lack of debate among MPs and NGOs and awareness among general public seem to preclude the process. "There is little awareness raising and practical work done because NGOs lack the practice and knowledge of lobbying ... Basically there is no united NGO movement, which could engage in discussions with the parliament members and push for the adoption of the law" says Mehriban Zeynalova, director of Clean World, a local NGO working with the victims of trafficking, violence, and sexual harassment.

So what now?

In its most recent report, the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women strongly urged the government to do so and, given the importance the Azerbaijani government attaches to its image abroad, the law will be passed this year at the latest. However, while little doubt is left to the passing of the law, it is its implementation that is worrying- will the new law on domestic violence really make a difference or will it only become another law passed for a check mark?