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Divorce in Azerbaijan: how to protect children?

‘If dad goes with us, maybe a policeman can accompany us’

When we entered the courtyard of the children’s shelter, we were met by a hubbub of children playing tag. The kids were playing in a narrow yard, crying, asking their moms for something, pulling them by their skirts, apparently unaware of the reason why they were there.

Women who are subjected to physical and mental abuse apply to this shelter. They scurry down the corridors of the two-story building and each of them can share a story of their hard and burdensome life.

One of them is Aydan Aliyeva [the name is conditional -ed.], 31, a mother of two children. She is wearing an apron and there are premature wrinkles on her face. She says she came to the shelter 2 months ago (when she filed for divorce) and took over the duties of a cook here. She says she thus tries to return her gratitude for the care that she and her children were offered in the shelter.

According to official data, 68,773 people entered into marriage and 12,764 got divorced in Azerbaijan in 2015. Experts say that divorces in Azerbaijan are starkly different from those in the developed countries. In the experts’ opinion, people in Azerbaijan rarely divorce in a civilized manner. Therefore, children of the divorcing couples suffer psychological traumas and their rights are violated.

For children’s sake

Aydan Aliyeva says that she and her children experienced serious stress during the divorce process. In her words, they feel much better now thanks to the shelter psychologists.

“My husband was a very caring father. He loved me and our children. But he started dating another woman 2 years ago. Then he began drinking alcohol. He beat me and insulted our children. At first I was patient. Then he moved permanently to that woman and later was sent to jail for drugs.

“I filed a petition in court. We got divorced when he was in prison. I still loved him for a couple of months after the divorce. I even expected that he would refuse to divorce at the trial. But he didn’t.”

Aydan says that the court left it to her discretion, whether to allow the father to see the children or not. “When in prison, he wanted to meet them. I sent the children to his relatives for 3 days and they visited their father in prison.”

Nurlana Ismayilova, a child psychologist, says that it’s better to divorce by mutual consent, so that children don’t suffer:

“A child needs to be explained that a decision to divorce will, in no way, prevent him/her from seeing the parents whenever he/she wants. During the divorce, the child’s opinion should also be taken into account. Parents should inform the child on this decision in a timely manner. Children, who are forbidden to see their parents during the divorce, experience stress. And this stress should, first of all, be removed in order to normalize their condition. How it is going to be done is determined after talking to a child.”

“Then, upon being released, he wished to meet the children again. I sent the children to him once again, but this time he deceived me. I couldn’t see the children for 4 months. Those were the hardest days in my life. My husband’s relatives said that the daughter missed me so much that she was literally melting away. My daughter was 6 then, and my son was 5. Finally, I hired a lawyer and got the children back through court.”

According to Aydan Aliyeva, upon the children’s return she reconciled with her ex-husband at his behest:

“I did it for my children’s sake. But everything happened again. Then I took the children and traveled to Baku, where I found this shelter. He didn’t pay me a single kopek of alimony, except for the months that I lived with him after the divorce. All I want now is to go to my aunt in Ukraine together with my children. But to do this I need his consent, therefore we are in litigation now. He says he would like to go with us.

The children are afraid of him, though, I swear, I have never said anything bad about him in their presence. My daughter asked one of the employees here: ‘If dad goes with us, is it possible that a policeman accompanies us?’ But I have no other way out. I will take my children to Ukraine even if I have to go there with him. I don’t know, maybe we’ll manage to start life with a clean slate.”

Aliya, 8, and her brother, Kamal, 7 [both are conditional names-ed.] haven’t attended school for 2 months already. Aliya refuses to communicate, while her brother opens the door of the room, where his mom is talking to me, every now and then, interrupting her story. His mother asks him (referring to the interview): ‘Kamal, would you like to talk?’ and the boy answers: ‘With dad? I’ll meet my father only if mom is there.”

The law and its execution mechanism

Fariz Akberov, a lawyer, says that the court decides on who a child will live with after divorce based on the conclusion of the district executive government’s child custody commission:

“There is only one psychologist in the commission. One psychologist per district with a total number of residents amounting to 100,000 people. The mechanism is as follows: a psychologist attends a trial, then visits a divorcing couple at home and draws up an act.

The psychologist checks the parents: whether they have a house; whether they are employed or not; then he/she has a conversation with a child. The child tells, who he/she would like to live with – their mother or father. That’s it. The psychologist makes records and goes to court. And the court makes a decision based on those records.

Psychological issues aren’t thoroughly considered, thus the mechanism is ineffective. The court doesn’t even have to wait for the child custody commission’s conclusion and can deliver judgment only based on the psychologist’s conclusion.

An effective solution to this problem is as follows: the court shall, within 3 months, send a child together with his/her parents to a family psychotherapist, as prescribed by the law in case of divorce. We don’t have public rehabilitation centers for that.”

According to the expert, there is only one psychological center in Azerbaijan and courts never apply to them:

“The children’s psychological department offers its service as part of forensic medical examination. And many people don’t not even know about it, since none of the courts send applications there. And since the center is located in Baku, people from the regions find it hard to come here. It is enshrined in the legislation. But there is no mechanism as such. Nevertheless, a draft law on psychological assistance has been submitted for consideration to Milli Majlis (Azerbaijani Parliament). So, let’s wait for its adoption.”

According to Fariz Akperov, during divorce, a child under 10, as a rule, stays with their mother. A child above 10 is entitled to decide which parent to live with:

“Under the legislation, a child is entitled to see both parents and relatives. And the parents also enjoy this right. Regrettably, a child in our country comes under the influence of a parent he/she lives with. In 70% of divorces, communication with a father isn’t specified in the court ruling. This is due to the fact that a barrister or a lawyer doesn’t file a petition in this regard. As a result, a father isn’t allowed to communicate with a child.”

“I hit her once’

Aydan Aliyeva’s ex-husband, Taleh Aliyev [the name is conditional-ed.] talks about his children in an extremely emotional manner. He only partially agrees with what has been said about him:

“I haven’t beaten her. By the way, it was she who ratted me out to the police. After our reconciliation I recalled it sometimes. That’s when I struck her once. Yes, I had another woman. But that’s life. It could happen to anyone.

They stayed with me almost all the time after the divorce. I didn’t pay alimony, that’s true. And it’s because I’m unemployed. Well, let me tell you one thing – I still love my wife. And I madly miss the children. Today it’s been exactly 2 months and 4 hours since I saw them last. I can’t let my wife and children go to Ukraine alone. I’ll go with them. I won’t repeat any of my past mistakes, because I can’t live without them.”

A civilized divorce and international best practices

Talia Ibrahimova, an official from the State Committee for Family, Women and Children Affairs:

“We, first of all, work towards the improvement of the legislation and raising public awareness. Our child support centers are operating in 11 regions. Specialists employed in those centers have been awarded international expert certificates. When certain structures encounter problems related to children’s rights they apply to those centers.”

You probably remember Nuray’s case. The fact that the international best practices aren’t applied in our country was a weaker point in that case too.”

A scandal around 10-year-old girl in Azerbaijan

Ten year-old Nuray’s father and aunt couldn’t ‘share’ her following her mother’s death. The girl had been living with her aunt, but the court made a ruling that she should live with her father. The court enforcement officers decided to take her by force after the girl’s aunt refused to give her up voluntarily. The scene, where the crying girl was taken away from her aunt, was recorded on video. When this video got on social media, it triggered a scandal. Finally, as a result of high-profile litigations involving the broader public and mass media, the parties managed to reach an agreement somehow. Nuray stayed at her aunt’s place and her father was allowed to visit her.

“According to international best practices, the agencies dealing with children should have a corresponding specialist, namely a psychologist. At the very least, the employees should be instructed on how to treat children. In this case, it was the Justice Ministry that had problems.

“In this situation we had to identify the problem, bring forth the issue and make relevant recommendations to other structures. Our psychologists worked with Nuray and her state has normalized now.”

According to Kamala Agazade, the Chairperson of Azerbaijan Children’s Union, the shelter under her agency’s jurisdiction is also intended for children who have fallen victims to violence:

“We have a lawyer, a psychologist, a social worker and a mentor, all who work with the children in a thorough and sensitive manner. If a child has been subjected to violence during divorce, we carry out additional rehabilitation work with him/her.”

The Azerbaijan Children’s Union often provides shelter for mothers, with children, who have nowhere to go after divorce.

According to Mehriban Zeynalova, Head of the ‘Clean World’ (Təmiz Dünya) NGO, the shelter has all necessities to provide for more than adequate living conditions and can accommodate 30 individuals:

“Sometimes it happens that we register more than 150 women throughout the year. 173 Women were registered in our shelter last year. A peaceful divorce is a controversial notion in the Azerbaijani society. Only one woman out of those who have appealed to us for shelter has divorced without problems. In the remaining cases, there are many conflicts and the parties tend to be biased. Violence is also the case. Women are abused and insulted. As a result, the children suffer.”

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