Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijan's Women Endure Workplace Harassment

Stigma attached to complaining and inadequate legal provision means victims suffer in silence.
By Maharram Zeynalov
  • Matanat Azizova, head of the Women's Crisis Centre in Azerbaijan. (Photo: Samira Ahmedbeyli)
    Matanat Azizova, head of the Women's Crisis Centre in Azerbaijan. (Photo: Samira Ahmedbeyli)

Women who face sexual harassment at work in Azerbaijan rarely report it for fear of causing a scandal, and because they have few legal protections anyway, rights activists say.

Anna worked for a tourist company in the capital Baku for just over a year, until she could no longer bear the advances of her boss and was forced to find work elsewhere.

“My boss made unacceptable remarks, so I resigned,” she said. “But before that I avoided him, and tried never to be alone with him.”

Anna, who like other women IWPR interviewed for this story asked to be identified only by her first name, did not tell her parents because she was worried they might stop her working. She lives with them.

“It isn’t just me who has faced harassment from our bosses; most of my friends have as well. But we have no one to turn to. An employee in Baku has no rights, and sadly the only way for a decent girl to stop being harassed is to resign,” she said.

Azerbaijan has a gender equality law that requires employers to prevent any kind of sexual discrimination or harassment. The law also prohibits retribution against employees who complain that their bosses have harassed them, and stipulates that victims should receive compensation.

Elgun Safarov, who works for the State Committee for the Family, Women and Children, said many women had complained to his team about mistreatment at work.

If they alleged sexual assault, they were directed to the prosecution service as this was a criminal matter. If the complaint was of sexual harassment, he said, his committee contacted the labour ministry’s employment department.

However, legal action in cases of harassment is extremely rare. Matanat Azizova, head of the Women’s Crisis Centre in Baku, says that women regularly call her staff to complain of sexual harassment, but generally the only ask for moral support.

“There have been only two cases where women wanted to take a case to court, and we didn’t manage to win them,” she said. “First, they place little trust in the courts. Women here know that the courts are corrupt and that the judges are mostly men. Secondly, there is no specific law on harassment.”

Although sexual harassment is covered in article 4 of the 2006 gender equality law, while article 7 obliges employers “to take the necessary measures to prevent discrimination on a sexual basis and sexual harassment”, these clauses are rarely enforced.

Khatira works for a major company in Baku, and says that harassment is so much part of the culture that it would be incredibly hard to do anything about it. She says that the senior managers, who are all men, regularly start liaisons with female subordinates, who then get more holidays, bigger bonuses and higher salaries than their colleagues, and can leave work early.

Women who refuse to enter into a relationship with their boss are mistreated and ridiculed.

“There was a case when a colleague turned our down boss in front of everyone, and he never forgave her,” Khatira said. “He just piled work onto this girl, and when she didn’t manage to do everything, he was really rude to her until eventually she had to resign.”

Mehriban Zeynalova of Clean World, an organisation that campaigns against sexual violence, agrees that few women are prepared to file official complaints of harassment.

“As the victims in these cases tell me, their bosses tell them they can complain if they want to, but that it will be pointless,” she said. “Secondly, the women themselves are scared of publicity, since our conservative society might conclude that the woman has given her boss the come-on.”

“To avoid harassment, we can only advise women to sign a contract that rules out on-the-spot dismissal.”

Gulnara, a 35-year-old accountant, says she is regularly harassed because she is divorced and thus considered fair game. She argues that the mere existence of legislation does not mean that any action is taken to enforce it.

“If they find out that a divorced woman has children whom she needs to support, then the employer is often convinced they’ll have sex with him in exchange for having a job,” she said. “In our country the laws don’t work. Who’s going to punish an employer who’s got money? If you go and complain, then you yourself are [deemed] guilty. Everyone will point their fingers at you and say you’re a slag.”

Maharram Zeynalov is a freelance journalist in Azerbaijan.

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