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The Real Laboratory Gender in the Caucasus on an Excursion to Baku

After familiarising ourselves with social work in Georgia during the political unrest in March, our final excursion took us to the very hot city of Baku. Together with our team colleagues from Georgia and Ukraine, we visited young social workers who are involved in civil society initiatives at great personal risk to promote democratic development in Azerbaijan.

Social workers Zamin Zekiyev and Jamil Ahmadzada from Ubuntu, for example, carry out queer social work in a predominantly queer-hostile society. They work together with university lecturers to design a practice-oriented social work curriculum in order to prepare graduates for the real and diverse challenges of professional life. The initiative also actively promotes understanding between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, a sensitive issue that the state equates with treason. It also helps veterans of the recent war over Nagorno-Karabakh to deal with their trauma – another area in which state institutions are shirking their responsibility.

The founders of the Gender Resource Centre Saadat Abdullazada and Aida Mirzayeva, presented their projects on sexual education for girls in rural areas, which is taboo in school lessons. They are also developing child-orientated materials to break down gender stereotypes. The creative collective from Var.yox argues for the freedom of art when it uses photographic and filmic means to clearly visualise and criticise social grievances. Ayna tries to create shelters for women and children affected by domestic violence and to pave the way for a self-determined life. And there is a kind of Berlin Tacheles in Baku! Salaam Cinema is a very dilapidated building in the centre of the city occupied by artists, in which studios, workshops, rooms for band rehearsals, exhibitions and film screenings have been lovingly renovated on their own initiative. The future of the building is completely uncertain, but the place is invaluable as a space for the uncensored exchange of ideas and a place to live.

All of the activists, with whom we were able to have very open conversations, are very well networked and support each other. However, they also report a high level of psychological stress, not only due to a lack of self-care, but also because of the constant threat of police violence and intolerant, aggressive fellow human beings. The often precarious financial situation and the lack of any prospect of a political turnaround have led many to consider a future abroad. For the Azerbaijani social workers, the many questions from the students were a rare and very welcome opportunity to reflect on their work and engage in an exchange about the realities of social work in Germany.

Gabriel Colero from Reallabor Gender in the Caucasus summarised his impressions after the trip as follows: "I am very grateful to have been given the opportunity to get to know social work in Azerbaijan. I think it was a very helpful and necessary addition to our theoretical preparatory work last year. 
The meetings with the various activist organisations showed me the value and necessity of a legal framework for social work based on very challenging realities. Without state recognition, without funding from the state, much more than persecuted people and potential criminals, social workers and activists work more or less underground to protect and preserve human rights. Under these adverse political and legal conditions, there are many vulnerable groups who are in urgent need of social work support, but by doing so, professionals make themselves vulnerable and jeopardise their own freedom and health. 
Thanks to the conversations and impressions I was able to gather in the field, the importance of the political mandate in social work became clearer to me than ever before. The work of the initiatives dealing with women's rights and the rights of queer people was not limited to social work, but was inevitably also a form of political activism. I think social work in Germany should always bear this in mind. In a way, it was refreshing and encouraging to meet this young, revolutionary generation of social workers who are in the process of establishing social work as a profession in Azerbaijan." 
David Degener, who was particularly interested in the topic of queer social work, stated: "It became clear that the visibility of queer people is difficult to achieve and that the community tends to meet in places that are only known to them. There are few resources and support services specifically for this community. However, some dedicated individuals are working to create safe spaces and counselling services that allow queer people to feel safe and find support." The situation of women in the country is also very complex. "Women are often tied to traditional gender roles and stereotypes. There are a few social projects to promote empowerment and education for women, but they meet with resistance and need to be carefully integrated into the existing structures."

We are grateful for the exchange of experiences with our colleagues in social work and look forward to future collaborations. 
Special thanks to the Eastern Partnership and Russia Programme of the Federal Foreign Office for their kind support of the Gender in the Caucasus project!




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Social and Educational Sciences Department

Room 105
Dr. phil. Marit Cremer
Academic staff member of "P³Dual"