Thirty-year-old Lala* cannot sleep at night.
Every time she closes her eyes, she relives the beatings and abuse she suffered when she was married.
Even though Lala is safe now, living with her children in a shelter for abused women, she lays awake at night out of terror that her ex-husband will attack again.
“I can't sleep at night. My entire body is in pain. I can't get over my fears,” she says.
A UN report found that domestic violence in Azerbaijan is widespread. A 2014 study shows that 43 percent of women have experienced domestic violence, and in 29 percent of the cases, the abuser was the victim’ spouse.
The report underscores that there is a lack of proper government services for victims. It has also notes there are severe shortcomings in the implementation of the law that should protect the victims of domestic violence.
Shahla Ismayil, Chairman of the Women's Association for Rational Development and a women's rights advocate, says that almost every day she receives calls from women suffering from abuse. Most victims don't know where they can turn for help, or what kind of service they can get. And because of economic dependence, women think that they cannot leave their spouses.
In Azerbaijan, women rarely report abuse to the police, and when they do seek help, there are few state resources to help them.
"Victims of violence often prefer to keep silent. They think ‘my husband can beat me, swear at me.’ Their children also become victims,” notes sociologist Sarah Agayeva.
She adds that even when they do report abuse, the police are little help.
“Sometimes when women call police, it does not help. Their husbands can be arrested for a short period, but when they are free, they repeat the same behavior and are violent again.”
That was Lala’s experience. She was forced to marry when she was 17 and her husband started beating her not long after they were married.
"I couldn't eat anything, I was vomiting all day because of the stress and fear. My mom advised me to be patient and said after I had a baby, everything will be ok." But the abuse continued.
“At night I couldn't move in bed, I was afraid to wake him up. Sometimes I hid in the bathroom, waiting for him to fall asleep so I could go to my bed. He would beat me. I spent ten years hiding in the bathroom,” Lala said through tears.
In the decade Lala lived with her husband, she tried to escape a couple of times. But he kept coming after her. Eventually she got a divorce and the court forbade her husband from seeing her. Even that did not stop him. He attacked Lala and her mother near the courthouse after the judge ruled in her favor.
A month ago, her ex-husband was arrested for the attack. Lala was put in police protection and sent to a shelter. But she still lives in fear for her mother’s safety. Her mother is still in the hospital recovering from the attack and no one is looking out for her.
"I want that family to disappear from the earth, and then I'll probably find peace. I know it will never happen. I'm afraid I can't go anywhere, cannot even to visit my mother."
Sociologist Agayeva notes that the laws do not provide enough protection for victims of domestic abuse: husbands or former husbands often continue to abuse their victims after they are released from prison and there is little women can do to stop them.
A Baku-based activist underscores that police often add to the problem. The activist, who asked not to be named out of fear for her safety, said police often “re-traumatize” the women who are brave enough to seek help.
“In my experience, I have not seen police exhibit decent behavior towards victims of domestic violence. Local police officers are unaware of how to speak and treat the victims. They are re-traumatizing them, subjecting the victim to blame, humiliation and trying to reconcile the victims with their abusers, to make a "good relationship" between the victim (woman) and the husband,” she says.
“They do not want to pay more attention to it.”
The activist was part of an unsuccessful online campaign in 2018 to raise funds to help victims of domestic abuse. The organizers were trying to help women who could not find a place in one of the country’s three residential shelters for victims of abuse.
Sociologist Sarah Agayeva notes that hundreds of women do not have access to a safe place to escape their abusers because there are not enough shelters in the country.
Today there are three operating shelters in Azerbaijan, a country of roughly 10 million people. That falls drastically short of international standards: the Council of Europe recommends one shelter for every 10,000 residents.
Azerbaijan’s Law on the Prevention of Domestic Violence, approved in 2010, envisions the establishment of state-supported centers to provide care and shelter for the victims of domestic violence.
Rahil Suleymanzade, a spokesman of the State Committee for Family, Women and Children of Azerbaijan, says there are ten accredited help centers in the country, spread between the cities of Baku, Sumgait and Ganja. There are no state-owned institutions for victims of domestic violence.
Out of the ten official shelters, seven do not provide women with a safe place to stay.
The law also states that local self-government bodies, non-governmental organizations, other agencies and individuals can create support centers. The apartments of individuals may be used as a charitable donation center upon their consent, for example.
In reality, however, the safety issues have proved too insurmountable for NGOs to do much on their own. The activist notes that in order to provide real shelter to a woman who is trying to escape her abuser, the organization needs to be able to provide security and protect her from possible attacks. That is not possible without help from the police.
Kamran Aliyev, a representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF), notes there are still some gaps in the implementation of the law on domestic violence.
The UNPF worked with the government to draft a national action plan to prevent domestic violence.
The action plan was drafted in 2017 and was sent to the parliament but it has not been ratified yet, Suleymanzade says, noting that while the government plans on taking additional steps, it cannot until the action plan is approved.
In the meantime, women have little recourse after they flee their abusers.
Zarifa*, 34, ran away from her husband three months ago, after ten years of abuse. Now she lives at a shelter with her daughters.
She is focused on earning enough money as a cleaner to move out of the shelter and create a life for her and her children.
"I am comfortable here, I know I can live. I can sleep at night which I could not do for ten years."
18-year-old Aydan* is also trying to figure out how to create a future for her and her baby. She entered a common law marriage with a married man in a desperate bid to escape her alcoholic father. Her mother, who left her father when Aydan was 11, set up the arrangement.
But the man beat Aydan and, nine months after her marriage – when she was five months pregnant – Aydan found herself with no place to go. Her stepfather did not want her to live at his house, her father would only take her back if she got an abortion.
Aydan found a place at one of the shelters and she can stay there with her baby for a few months. But she fears what the future will bring.
“I do not have any place to go, I am afraid I will be homeless.”
* The names of the women have been changed to protect their identities.