Just a few years ago, Shahla had difficulty writing her own name. Once at a local courtroom, an office clerk asked her to fill out her name and surname. “I can’t. I don’t know the letters,” Shahla said. All she could do was draw something approaching a signature on the bottom of the paper.
Shahla is 25 years old and comes from Gadabay, a district of western Azerbaijan. She says she’s enough time appealing to all the possible state bodies to get alimony for her eight-year-old daughter. In the end, the court ruled that her ex-husband had to pay 100 AZN ($59) every month for their daughter.
Domestic chores interfered with schooling
“I’m not able to write and read. I attended school for three years,” says Shahla, recalling her childhood memories. Shahla says that after her father’s death, her mother started to work as a seller at the local bazaar. As the eldest child, Shahla had to take care of the house while her mother was out working.
“I was helping my mother. I looked after my little brother. Housework kept me busy and I forgot about study. There was no one to explain to me how my life would be darkened without education,” she recalls.
Shahla is one of many young people in Azerbaijan who never received an education. She is one of those who, due to the pressure of rural poverty, slipped through the cracks in the system and was left illiterate. It wasn’t always like this; during the Soviet period, education was compulsory and parents would be fined if their children did not attend school. In theory, the same system has continued in Azerbaijan since the 1990s, but now there is next to no control over school attendance.
Although Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Education didn’t respond to an official information request from Chai Khana on the topic, its press secretary confirmed in a telephone call that the ministry does not collect statistics on how many children have not received a full education.
Handicap of millennials: can’t read, can’t write
The few media reports on the topic are grounds for concern. When the results of the national university entrance exam for 2015 were revealed, it transpired that 64 ninth grade and 2 eleventh grade pupils had not even passed the lowest standards demanded by the school curriculum; they were unable to read and write. As the State Commission on Student Acceptance (currently known as the State Examination Center) told, a year later this number had increased: 100 graduates of secondary school could not read and write in 2016.
Nevertheless, experts on education believe that the level of illiteracy among young Azerbaijanis is largely linked to their families’ financial difficulties. This appears to be especially in true for people in the provinces, like Shahla. A recent UNICEF Azerbaijan report estimated that approximately 4.7% of the country’s children do not attend to elementary school, while 12.6% of teenagers are left out of the education system. The majority of children who were left without education, the report concluded, are girls and children with disabilities.
If these estimates are anything to go by, Shahla’s story must be one of thousands in Azerbaijan today. Her childhood outside school was not a happy one. At the age of 15 Shahla got engaged, and married a year later. “Like everybody else around me, I thought I would be happy being married,” says Shahla. “Due to age my marriage was not official. But then he didn’t like me and left me for other woman”.
Shahla wanted to give a chance to the second marriage, which was also unofficial (in many rural areas of Azerbaijan, a wedding is seen as a more important ceremony than officially registering the marriage with the authorities. As a result, many rural families only register their marriages after the birth of their first child - ed.) She soon gave birth to a second daughter. But this marriage was also an unfortunate one; Shahla lost her second husband to a car accident.
Now living alone with her two daughters, Shahla works as a cleaner at a cafe. Sometimes she does domestic work in private houses. Her daily income is just five Manat ($3); if she’s luck and gets a house cleaning job, her daily income could rise to 8-10 Manat ($6).
“I appealed to get social assistance from the government, but nothing... Our only hope is alimony for the child. And thanks to good people I find day jobs sometimes, I earn enough to eat. I live in a village, where it’s not acceptable for a [young, single] woman to work at a cafe. However, I need to save my children, I’m afraid that their futures could be harmed due to my job at a cafe, with people gossiping behind my back,” she sighs.
For her daughters’ sake, Shahla refuses to be photographed and asks that the name of her village not be mentioned. “My daughter goes to school, her schoolmates don’t know about me. We have moved to a new place, no one knows me here. If people see my picture on the internet, they could slander me, and say things to my child.”
Habiba reads slowly, spelling out each syllable
Habiba, a 20-year old from a suburb of the Azerbaijani capital Baku, also missed out on an education due to her unstable upbringing. “I was four years old when my parents divorced. I lived under the protection of my grandmother. My documents show that I studied five years, but it didn’t ever happen,” says Habiba, who is expecting her first baby in three months’ time.
Her marriage quickly broke apart; as an uneducated young woman she now has neither a job nor a place to live.
“I was sent to an orphanage at the age of six. I don’t remember for long I stayed there for, but I was sent back to my grandmother. I stayed at home all day doing housework. What I learnt at orphanage is my only education. I never went to proper school,” she says.
None of Habiba’s five siblings attended school. After their mother and father got divorced, they both gave up the children and married other partners. When Habiba’s grandmother passed away, her elder brothers kicked her out of the family house. She has no idea where her younger brother and sisters might be, but suspects they are “at an orphanage somewhere.”
“My mother never loved my father. She was underage when she was made to marry him, and was forced to deliver us to the world. Then she left us because we are the children of a man who she doesn’t love. They both have their own families now,” recalls Habiba.
Habiba has turned to odd jobs to make ends meet; she used to hand out flyers for small companies in the streets, or sell flowers in order to earn money. Now she says she spends her nights at “places offered by kind people,” and that her former husband doesn’t know about her pregnancy.
“I don’t know how, but I will look after my baby myself. I’m now trying to learn how to read; I can spell by reading out syllables. I will also learn how to use a computer,” she stresses.
He only sends voice messages
Arif Aliyev from the city of Mingechevir says he chose not to attend school. The 25-year old, who suffers from a traumatic brain injury, now regrets his decision. “I was never interested in going to school,” he sighs.
“I was expelled from schools. I never opened books. I was collecting bottles and earned money by selling them. So, now I’m not able to read or write,” explains Arif. “I only know numbers – because they are written on money.”
Arif uses Whatsapp to communicate, but he can only identify callers by their numbers, not their names. He says he only sends voicemails.
Arif faces other limitations, too; after a work accident, he suffered from trauma and cannot lift heavy loads. He now does odd jobs around construction sites as an unskilled worker, cleaner and repairer. Nevertheless, Arif is happy that he doesn’t rely on anybody else; he earns around 10 Manat ($5) a day and receives 61 Manat ($35) in disability allowance every month from the state.
Even though he has a girlfriend, Arif is reluctant to marry. “I don’t have stable income. How will I look after a family? I didn’t have an education so couldn’t get a government job. You should feed children, educate them. I don’t have this means for that. I don’t want my children to be uneducated like me,” he explains.
Main reasons: underage marriage and forced labor
Another Baku resident who missed out on an education is 13-year old Rasul. Five months ago he was selling napkins in the streets when local police found him and took him to a shelter for children. Kamala Aghazade, an expert on children’s rights, says that more than 200 children were brought to this Baku shelter in 2018, and that 80% of them can neither read nor write. According to Aghazade, the main reason for girls’ lack of education is underage marriage and forced labor for boys.
Rasul is now officially registered as a victim of human trafficking; an investigation is ongoing into his involvement in forced labor. Rasul says his father died long ago; before he was kicked out he was living with his mother, siblings, and stepfather. After his sister got married, Rasul’s new brother-in-law forced him to work and even beg on the city’s streets.
“My sister’s husband beat all of us. Neither my mother nor my sister could do anything because they were afraid. My stepfather also didn’t want me to work, but he was scared too,” says Rasul.
Rasul’s mother and sister come to visit him in the shelter, but he says he doesn’t want to go back to his previous life; he fears that he could be forced into begging again. “When I asked my mom why I don’t go to school, she told me that my documents had been burnt, so I couldn’t,” Rasul explains.
“Now Rasul always has a book in his hands,” says Aghazade. “He hasn’t been to school yet, but has individual tutoring. We have four more children in the shelter now who also get individual classes, later they will attend regular schools.”