By Ulya Aligulova

During the summer, Tarlan Ahmadov, founder and president of the Azerbaijani Society of Maine, traveled to his home country of Azerbaijan to meet with several groups from the recently established Azerbaijan Rural Women’s Organization (ARWA), which supports women’s economic and community empowerment through a model first developed in India.

“I was so impressed and touched by these women,” Ahmadov said. “I hadn’t been to Azerbaijan in a very long time, and to see such progress was inspiring. I met with such proactive, independent, and self-sufficient women. Most rural women get married young, and have to take care of their families and farms. This project gives them the freedom, autonomy, and sense of purpose they’ve been looking for. And what shocked me the most is that none of these women wanted our financial help – they only wanted ideas and education on how to expand their businesses.”

Azerbaijan Rural Women’s Organization started as part of the Second Rural Investment Project (2012-2019) in Azerbaijan, run by the Ministry of Agriculture and supported by the World Bank. “Its goal was to improve access to community-driven rural infrastructure and expand economic activities for rural households,” said the project’s team leader, Tara Sharafudheen. “In summer 2017, I arranged for a delegation of staff from this project to visit India, where I’m from, since India runs the world’s largest rural livelihood program for low-income and low-skilled rural women.” Sharafudheen said this model, which benefits about 55 million women across India, involves groups of women coming together to start their own businesses, with their own money. ARWO Deputy Project Director Gulbeniz Ganbarova saw the Indian model and thought it might work in Azerbaijan.

ARWA’s regional meeting with visitors from USA – Zemfira Ahmadova (Maine), Professor Jamila Javadova-Spitzberg (Dallas, TX),
Alyona Badalova (NYC), Kamilla Shahbazova ( NYC).

“Although the project was initially only about infrastructure – improving village roads and access to health and educational resources – it was soon recognized that it should also help people in the rural regions increase their income,” Sharafudheen said. Ganbarova submitted an official request that the World Bank include a women’s economic empowerment component, based on this model, in the project. The first trainers came to Azerbaijan in March 2018, funded by the Indian government, to try to implement this model. “We started five pilot groups in different regions,” said Sharafudheen. “Part of the model was to make it self-sustaining. ARWA was formed in November of 2018 to take over the groups and sustain this model after the project ended in 2019. The people who worked on this component all joined ARWA, with Ganbarova becoming the chair.”

She explained that the project isn’t just about economic empowerment, but also helps women play an active role in the community. Women can’t have a voice in the market if they don’t have a voice in their communities. “It’s important that this model doesn’t work on the basis of grants. If people don’t have ownership of their own business, they won’t be invested in it, which is why programs that simply give out grants don’t work in the long run,” she said. “I’ve found that men were extremely supportive. They supported their wives and sisters, which is very important. It’s kind of a revolution, but in a very gentle and socially acceptable way.”

Groups each consist of 10-20 people, and this size helps women establish a decent-size business that has an opportunity for growth. Requirements for groups include an elected chair and secretary, weekly meetings with minutes that record all group decisions, and money added to a savings account each week. Contributions are kept in a bank account, and this money is invested. Groups usually begin with some form of cooking, farming, or sewing business. With time, as the entrepreneurs’ confidence grows, they start taking on more challenges. A supportive network and community for women is an outcome of these groups. ARWA assists approximately 700 women across Azerbaijan – supports the groups, mentors them, arranges skill development, and partners with other organizations with common goals.

This model is unique in that the groups also do vulnerability mapping of their communities. They assess problems in education, health, and the environment, in their community, and pick an area they want to help improve. Then they meet with the municipal chair, develop campaigns, and seek solutions. “For example, a lot of groups have worked on solid waste management – they arranged for private trash collection for every household,” Sharafudheen said. “During COVID, they tutored kids, and checked in on the elderly, buying groceries for them. This kind of work earns these women a lot of respect in their communities, and they become role models for the young girls in the community.”