Gulnara Ahmadova helps a client at her gym. Photo: Elmar Mustafayev/UNDP Azerbaijan


Gulnara is no stranger to business. She was 22 when she opened a beauty salon offering hairdressing, make-up styling, and other cosmetic treatments in the small town of Bilasuvar, Azerbaijan.

“It was a struggle to get by at first, with only a few customers a day, but word got around and slowly the salon became more and more popular,” she remembers.

That early confident step towards economic independence made Gulnara think about becoming a businesswoman.

“I began wondering if there were other things out there for me. I realised that women in this area wanted facilities that didn’t exist. I started to think like an entrepreneur, seeing opportunities where before I’d just seen a problem.”

In Azerbaijan, as in many parts of the world, the disparities in economic opportunities for women and men are rooted in traditional gender roles. These restrictions leave women bearing the burden of unpaid domestic and care work – a fundamental obstacle to their entering and rising in the labour market or setting up their own enterprises. Women also find it hard to come by opportunities for professional development, including skills training and networking, which are key to their economic empowerment and independence. Confidence, capital and connections, easily available to men due to patriarchal norms, elude most women.

In such a context, giving women spaces to meet, network, exchange ideas, forge partnerships, attract capital, gain confidence and grow professionally can have transformative impacts. In rural and remote areas especially, such spaces can be instrumental in helping women to learn more about their rights, discover untapped potential, and overcome obstacles that once seemed insurmountable.

Working together at the Women's Resource Center. Photo: Elmar Mustayef / UNDP Azerbaijan


The Women’s Resource Centres in Azerbaijan have done precisely this, equipping women in rural areas with tools and resources to help them launch their own businesses.

The Centres were opened in areas where women face challenges from a variety of reasons besides restrictive cultural norms. Early marriage, men emigrating to Russia for work, high proportions of internally displaced people and limited access to main roads and infrastructure all contribute to their exclusion.

Since their launch in 2011, the eight Women Resource Centers have provided more than 6,000 women with free training courses on a range of hard and soft skills – from accounting and financial literacy, computer science, fundraising, and women’s human and economic rights, to resumé writing, presentation skills and networking.

Gulnara


Gulnara, for example, learned valuable entrepreneurial and business administration skills during her six-day course. She also gained confidence. “I made a lot of friends and contacts at the Centre with women from other villages and towns,” she says. “I think it changed all of us in how we see ourselves as women in this society.”

The expert trainers at the Centre immediately recognized the feasibility of Gulnara’s gym idea. They worked with her to turn her idea into a business plan, and also helped her to buy her first fitness equipment and renovate the premises.

The small town’s first gym for women opened in 2017. It has almost 30 clients as regular members. And the space is a positive one for women. “The exercise helped to lose weight, but this is not the main reason I come here,” says one client. “Most importantly, I feel good about being able to take care of myself and be an example for others.”

Rashada Asadova at work in her tailor shop. Photo: Elmar Mustafayev / UNDP Azerbaijan


Over the years, nearly 150 women launched their own businesses with support from the Women’s Resource Centres.

Rashada’s success echoes Gulnara’s journey. A seamstress in Masalli, Rashada specialises in sewing quality linens and wedding trousseaus. Despite her talent, hard work, and determination, she spent years unable to meet the demand for her highly marketable products and to make a living from her craft.

“My husband, my two children and I were all living in one small room,” said Rashada. “There wasn’t enough space for my sewing-machine, let alone for fabrics.”

Without a proper workspace, she was unable to get her business off the ground.

Attending a session the Women’s Resource Centre, Rashada shared her idea to convert an abandoned old shed in the yard of her apartment building into a work space for her business.

“It seemed so simple. I never really thought I could create a business plan. But they took me seriously and I started the training.”


With the new connections she made at the centre, Rashada learnt how to develop a business plan, analyse market needs, organize production, and build relations with customers and employees. With the Centre’s support, a separate workplace was built, which she renovated with income from her business.

Her expanded business is now running smoothly, she is earning three times more than she did before and she also started getting orders from the neighboring towns. The workspace is also used for tailoring courses she teaches to several young women. In the evening, community members gather at her workplace for tea and talks.

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Zumrud Mammadova runs a computer center. Elmar Mustafayev / UNDP Azerbaijan
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Khalida Jafarova is running a family-owned greenhouse. Photo: Elmar Mustafayev / UNDP Azerbaijan
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Govher Khanhuseynova's new bakery is thriving. Photo: Elmar Mustafayev / UNDP Azerbaijan
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Aytekin Sadiqova started a honeybee farm. Photo: Elmar Mustafayev / UNDP Azerbaijan
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Rena Mekhraliyeva set up a pre-wedding ceremony business. Photo: European Union

The success of the Women Resource Centres, supported by UNDP Azerbiajan and its partners, has inspired new partnerships and funding. UNDP, with funding from UN Women, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Austrian Development Cooperation and support of Azerbaijan’s State Committee for Family, Women and Children’s Affairs is now planning to open two more centres, support development of a third, and help 70 new women launch their businesses.

Editor's Note: If you found this story interesting, read more stories of success: here.

 

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