#GirlsCan and We Believe In You
In 1918, the newly formed Republic of Azerbaijan became one of the first nations in the world to grant women the right to vote.
In 1918, the newly formed Republic of Azerbaijan became one of the first nations in the world to grant women the right to vote. A century later, on a crisp fall morning, 200 Azerbaijani youth gather in the Baku Congress Center to discuss the current role of young women and what needs to be done to give them greater opportunities to thrive in the future.
As the young adults queue in the security lines, their voices are hushed - only the sound of their rubber-soled Adidas sneakers on the marble floor echo across the vast hall. The light-filled building, with its sharp modern lines, provides an ideal background for social media photos, and the youth begin to pose for their Instagram feeds and stories, encouraged by the promotional selfie booth and giant #qizlarbacrir photo props.
They are here for the #GirlsCan Youth Forum, a series of panel discussions featuring key decision makers, officials, and community influencers, organized jointly by UNICEF and the Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan (AFFA), with the support of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Gender continues to play an influential role in the economic and cultural fabric of this country that is marked by strong historical stereotypes. A societal preference for boys is evident in Azerbaijan’s highly skewed birth rate. Although the number of women participating in national level politics has increased steadily over the last two decades, only 20 of the 125 Members of the Parliament are female. And the differences in opportunities between those living in Baku compared to those in the regions continues to be an issue.
Jamilla, a 20 year old student attending Baku State University, came to the forum wanting to gain hope from the conversations. “I am not the most talented or smartest of the girls I went to school with from my village, but so many are encouraged and expected to marry young, they do not continue their education. They do not understand they have a voice.”
“Never doubt how important and strong you are.”
For over a decade, UNICEF and AFFA have worked together to help girls find their voices through participation in sports. In his introductory remarks, AFFA General Secretary Elkhan Mammadov said, “When girls are given the chance to take part in sport, they can challenge the stereotypes that label them as less able than boys. Sport, like education, can help girls become equal players in society.”
In March, this same partnership launched the Girls Can campaign to promote gender equality. As part of this, they developed a series of videos featuring the inspirational life stories of four women who each found their life’s calling in non-traditional spheres - a poet, an inventor/entrepreneur, a football player and an emergency rescue worker - each one breaking boundaries as they follow their passions.
Choosing to feature the coach of Azerbaijan’s U-15 national girls football team, Amina Heydarova, seemed the most appropriate transition into this new campaign. In the video, Ms. Heydarova appears entering the stadium. The camera spans the stands, emphasizing the scale of her accomplishment, and we understand that this moment is the realization of what may have once seemed an unattainable childhood dream. As she begins to speak, she looks directly into the camera. “Never doubt how important and strong you are,” she says, her words delivered with quiet self assurance. “The key is believing, in yourself, in your work and in your success.” Her heartfelt message and personal plea to a rising generation of girls to find strength within themselves is at the very heart of the #GirlsCan Youth Forum message and set the tone for the panel discussions.
“Girls Can, and we believe in you!”
When she first became a candidate for Parliament, Sevinj Fataliyeva recalls feeling she had to work twice as hard in order to prove herself to the electorate -- she was both young and she was a woman. “I had to prove I was capable. I had to knock doors. I had to talk about my values, share my perspective, my plans.”
She explained further that for a woman in a society well rooted in stereotypes, people wondered whether she could be successful. “A woman’s capacity and knowledge must be double that of a man’s. She must put forth her flexibility at every moment of her life.”
Ms. Fataliyeva offered her encouragement to the young women in attendance. Referencing the Forum’s slogan, she said “Girls Can! But, I would like to add, and we believe in you!”
She reminded the group of their own capacity and personal responsibilities to effect change. “We have to start with ourselves. Your example, your successes influence those around you.”
“The power for women is there, they just need to use it.”
One of the toughest hurdles for women to overcome on their road to success is to realize the abilities that already lie within. During one exchange, Chairperson of the State Committee on Family, Women and Child Issues, Ms. Hijran Huseynova asked “Why must we ask how can we prepare women more? Women are already prepared!”
“Their education and experiences have set them up for success,” she continued, “but they need to believe in themselves and have the motivation for success. Young women need to allow themselves the opportunity to try something and fail and then try again a second, and third time or more if necessary.”
Ms. Huseynova explained that the Presidential Decree on Strengthening Gender Policy signed in 2000, as well as the Law on Gender Equality, signed in 2006 provide young women with access to government resources to effect change. “The power for women is there, they just need to use it.”
After these remarks, Jamilla, the student from Baku University said, “Such events are motivating for girls and I think should be organized in regional schools. There are so many who need this message.” Edward Carwardine, UNICEF’s Representative to Azerbaijan agrees. “For a nation committed to building its human capital, empowering girls and young women is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.”
“We must have equal participation. Better decisions come through greater diversity.”
One such UNICEF initiative, piloted in the Baku-Binagadi and Mingachevir districts of Azerbaijan, is a joint government-UN Youth Houses programme. The main objective of this pilot is to revitalize the cross-country system of Youth Houses and to introduce youth-friendly services to adolescents.
One of the key courses offered to young people through the Youth Houses pilot project helps them develop basic life skills. Michelle May, a UNICEF International Consultant who designed the course, is now working to develop a girls-oriented version for AFFA’s Girls Empowerment Academy. “Even teachers themselves need instruction to create the right environment - sometimes they unconsciously perpetuate biases.” Bringing these services to girls where they live is a new approach to focusing on both their inclusion and empowerment.
Through a variety of programming, UNICEF continues to identify partnerships within Azerbaijan that will give young women and girls the opportunity to succeed and flourish in society. Firuddin Gurbanov, Deputy Minister of Education, best summarized the value in these initiatives and conversations saying, “We must have equal participation. Better decisions come through greater diversity.”