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".

Talking man-to-man

Sociologist Javid Shahmaliyev has been taking part in projects designed to tackle the issue and promote the value of girls since 2010. Over the last three years, however, heʹs been faced with a very challenging task: re-educating the male representatives of this patriarchal culture.

"There are several awareness programmes throughout Azerbaijan that are either social media or event-based. But there are some people, especially those in rural areas, who either donʹt have Facebook or are unlikely to attend such events. They can only be convinced if you speak to them face-to-face. Weʹve been going from one teahouse to the next, talking to them man-to-man," explained Shahmaliyev.

Imam Oktay Quliyev (photo: private)
Overcoming initial resistance: Talking about the Prophet Muhammad who had no son but a daughter, named Fatima, is a good way to capture peopleʹs attention, says Quliyev."We tell them there is no difference between the pre-Islamic tradition of burying girls right after they are born and sex-selective abortion. We also tell them that the Koran specifically mentions daughters as being bearers of good news"

He added that at the beginning it was difficult to gain their attention and respect, but over time, as instructors, they have been able to develop ways of communicating with them.

"They would consider talking about abortion, but because it is a taboo, we talk to them instead about the value of girls. 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 told people what Islam says about the value of girls. The co-operation of the religious leaders and imams has brought tremendous results."

Daughters as blessings  

One such imam who tackles sex-selective abortions is Oktay Quliyev. He participates in awareness projects and uses his weekly TV programme on a national channel to convince people that the practice is wrong. At the beginning, he said, he faced resistance from society, but talking about the Prophet Muhammad who had no son but a daughter, named Fatima, was a good way to capture peopleʹs attention.

"We mention verses from the Koran that prohibit the pre-Islamic tradition of burying girls right after they are born. We tell them there is no difference between this tradition and sex-selective abortion. We also tell them that the Koran specifically mentions daughters as being bearers of good news."

Quliyev suggested that banning abortion and prohibiting revealing the sex of the foetus to the parents during pregnancy, the way South Korea did during the 1990s when it was facing sex-selective abortions, could be one way of tackling the issue.

But most of the Azerbaijanis surveyed, including sociologist Shahmaliyev and activist Zeynalova, believe that bans would not be provide an answer to the problem, as the UNFPA report also indicates.

According to the report there was wide consensus amongst the government officials and others interviewed that bans are not the answer. First, they would be very difficult to enforce, as doctors can just give a different reason for conducting the abortion. Second, they run the risk of pushing women to have abortions under less safe circumstances. Besides, technological developments are making it ever easier to detect the sex of the foetus early in pregnancy.

Rather than bans, what Azerbaijan society needs is a large-scale action plan. Indeed a measure to this end is actually ready and awaiting governmental approval.

Implementing the action plan

Elnur Suleymanov, the head of a department at Azerbaijanʹs Labour and Social Protection of Population Ministry, said that the efforts of imams, groups and ministries are important, but insufficient when it comes to tacking the problem.

"We have prepared an action plan with the UNFPA. We are asking other state institutions for their opinions on this plan, which is based on raising awareness and running campaigns aimed at gender equality. This plan will present a comprehensive roadmap for effective intervention strategies to reduce sex-selective abortions; it will have its own budget, executive committee and measures. We need it to protect the future of our society."

Ayse Karabat

© Qantara.de 2019

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