Azerbaijanʹs struggle to promote the value of girls

Imams against sex-selective abortion

Azerbaijan is struggling to change the mind-sets of families aborting female foetuses. Imams who have weighed in on the issue have become indispensable in up-ending this practice. Experts say the country urgently needs to implement an action plan or it will face dire consequences. Ayse Karabat reports from Baku

Azerbaijan ranks second in the world, after China, in the number of sex-selective pregnancy terminations. A conversation between Qantara and the inhabitants of a womenʹs shelter in Baku, the countryʹs capital, merely confirmed the reality.

"I had two daughters already. My husband had threatened to leave me if the third one was a girl. When I found out that it was a girl, I did not go to get an abortion initially, I tried to provoke a miscarriage instead. I was hospitalised," one woman said in the meeting room of the three-story shelter, which hosts 30 women.

Almost all the women there have similar stories. Theyʹve been forced or felt obliged to have abortions at least once in their lives because they were pregnant with girls. One woman took a different path. "I had three girls and one boy. When my fifth, a girl, was born, my husband forced me to give her up for adoption. I had to. Then I had another child – it was a boy. We kept him."

Mehriban Zeynalova, chairperson of the Clean World Aid to Women Public Union NGO and the manager of the shelter, told Qantara that sex-selective abortion is a huge problem in the country. "But women here are not aware that they actually are victims of this problem. They don't make official complaints for being forced into sex-selective abortions," Zeynalova said.

Troubling times ahead

According to demographic and health surveys of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Azerbaijan, approximately one in two pregnancies in the country is terminated through abortion. Azerbaijani laws permit abortion up to 12 weeks into pregnancy. Women can also request it up to 22 weeks – under specific financial or social circumstances.

Sociologist Javid Shahmaliyev stands next to the imam during an awareness session held in a local mosque (photo: private)
Talking up the value of girls in a patriarchal society: sociologist Javid Shahmaliyev has been taking part in projects designed to tackle the issue since 2010. "We talk to them in the teahouses, we talk to them in the mosques. We raise awareness among religious leaders. Even though Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, Islamic ideas are not that known, so we tell people what Islam says about the value of girls. The co-operation of the religious leaders and imams has brought tremendous results"

The UNFPAʹs reports underline that in Azerbaijan the ratio of boys to girls was 116 to 110 at the beginning of the 2010s, although the biological norm in the world is 105 boys to 100 girls. In 2016 this number declined to 114 boys, but is still high.

"If such an increase in the number of men and boys continues, the country will soon face a negative impact including, for example, a wider gender gap in education, a reduction in the proportion of women in the labour market and masculinisation in all spheres of public life. Such masculinisation will impede the promotion of women and lead to increased levels of crime, including human trafficking," the UNFPAʹs report warned.

The same report indicated that son preference is strong and clear among both men and women from different generations, socio-economic backgrounds and regions in the country. Sons are preferred as "assets" since they can contribute to the family, while daughters on the other hand are regarded as "liabilities".

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