A mother's fight to save her daughters

Author: Parvana Rahimova


photos by Gular Abbasova


Nine years ago, Nurana was on the brink of a happy life. She had just found out she was pregnant and, while her arranged marriage to a cousin was not perfect, her life seemed to be taking shape.

Then her in-laws found out she was carrying a girl. After that, she says, her life “became hell”.

Nurana, 31, says her mother-in-law, her mother's sister, was incensed when Nurana decided not to get an abortion.

“She pushed her son to fight with me…Knowing that I would give birth to a girl, he turned his back on me. He didn’t speak to me for days. I asked what I had done wrong. Frowning he replied to me 'I don’t want to have a baby girl',”she says.

Nurana held her ground, however, and had the baby. For a while, things seemed to calm down at home, especially when the family learned she was pregnant again.

But when they found out the baby was once again a girl, Nurana started to feel even more pressure to have an abortion.

Soon she felt she had to choose between her unborn daughter and her marriage. She decided to get a divorce, even though her own family was pressuring her to give in to her in-laws.


The State Committee for Family, Women and Children Affairs says it is impossible to determine how many selective abortions are made in the country. “Sometimes selective abortions are not registered by doctors, and abortions are also made at home,” noted Aynur Veysalova, a member of the committee.

Azerbaijani gender experts note that what Nurana experienced is not unusual in Azerbaijan, where gender-selective abortion rates are the second highest in the world, second only to China.

A recent study found that most of the women who made abortion (90.1 percent) reported that their male partners were involved in the abortion decision-making process. Financial support for abortion is also normally provided by men, notes Khalisa Shahverdi, a gender and sustainable development expert.

“That is why in the annual Global Gender Gap Reports Azerbaijan ranks first among gender-based selective abortions. For example, if we were ranked 3rd in 2018, we ranked second after China, 152nd out of 153 countries, in 2020,” she says.

Nurana's decision to protect her daughters and get a divorce is less common.

“When a woman wants to protest and divorce, they [older people] almost cannot accept it. Parents and relatives sometimes force young girls to marry. But divorce is a more serious process than marriage. People are more serious about divorce than marriage in Azerbaijani culture,” notes sociologist Sanubar Heydarova.


Nurana agreed to marry a cousin to please her family. But the marriage ended in divorce after her aunt tried to force her to abort her unborn baby girl.

Nurana says even her husband turned against her when he found out that the baby was a girl.

Nurana's act of protest has cost her dearly. While she has saved her daughters, she has been forced to live in abject poverty because her own family has refused to support her.

After her divorce, the young mother has been forced to care for her daughters alone. Her now ex-husband has never come to see their daughters.

Nurana agreed to marry a cousin to please her family. But the marriage ended in divorce after her aunt tried to force her to abort her unborn baby girl.

Nurana says even her husband turned against her when he found out that the baby was a girl.

Nurana's act of protest has cost her dearly. While she has saved her daughters, she has been forced to live in abject poverty because her own family has refused to support her.

After her divorce, the young mother has been forced to care for her daughters alone. Her now ex-husband has never come to see their daughters.



Gender activist Leyla Hasanova notes that in Azerbaijan, a woman is viewed as “sentenced” to a restricted existence after a divorce.

“A woman with a child who is divorced should not marry a second time. She should continue her life as a mother, and have nothing but her child's world; her personal life, her personal relationships, her intimate life, and so on, cannot exist. This also leads to the increasing pressure on women by the moral roles imposed on women,” she says.

Sociologist Sanubar Heydarova adds that even when they decide to divorce, women in Azerbaijan struggle to take control of their lives. For instance, they normally return to their family house and depend on their father or brothers to support them and their children, she says.

“Women cannot live their lives independently. If a woman is illiterate, she will face deliberate obstacles and pressures from her family. Also, demanding child support is a very difficult process for women in Azerbaijan,” she says, noting that the husband often refuses to pay child support.

Securing the money can mean a long, drawn out legal battle that requires expensive lawyers – a cost many families are not able or willing to pay. “That's why a divorced woman doesn't know what to do in this difficult situation. Also, women are not seriously assisted by the government in the alimony process. In addition, the family itself deliberately creates conflicts, which can lead to problems with getting alimony.”

Nurana's act of protest has cost her dearly. While she has saved her daughters, she has been forced to live in abject poverty because her own family has refused to support her.


Nurana has just 200 dollars a month to meet her family’s needs. As the girls are too small to leave alone, she cannot work. Her only income is state assistance and alimony.

Nurana and the two girls live in a derelict building in Baku, a temporary residence for families displaced from Karabakh, a breakaway region of the country.

Nurana says now she lives with the hope her girls will get a good education and live a better life.

Gender-based discrimination persists in Azerbaijan, even in modern families that do not support sex-based abortion. Instead, one gynecologist noted, they are happy when the baby is a boy and, if it is a girl, they just hope she will be healthy.

A 2016 study by the Azerbaijan State Committee on Family, Women and Children Affairs found that many families choose to abort girls because they only want two children. So, if the first child is a girl, the second should be a boy. Another major reason is poor family planning--birth control or contraceptives are either not used or not used properly.



Today Nurana and her two daughters—who are now eight and five years old, respectively— live in a derelict building in the capital, Baku, a temporary residence for families displaced from Karabakh, a breakaway region of the country.

She has been raising her daughters alone for four years and her husband has never come to see their daughters. In addition, he fought paying her child support for two years.

“That hurt me much more,” she says. Finally, the court forced her now ex-husband to pay her alimony for the children. 

“He applied first to the court in order to divorce me officially. I was shocked. Because there was no reason to divorce me. It was just an unbelievable excuse that I had not given birth to a boy. Either I had to be the killer of my babies or choose to divorce. I had to choose divorce.”

Today she also receives a bit of assistance from the government—50 manat or around 27 dollars—and her mother helps her a bit. The rest of her family has cut her off over her decision to divorce.

While the little family struggles to make ends meet, Nurana tries to create the best life she can for her daughters. She reads them books and they go to the park every day.

She is also trying to improve her skills as a mother by reading psychological books and watching educational videos on Youtube.

“I don't have any other choice right now,” she says.

“I have had to forget there is also a woman inside of me. I dedicate my entire day to my children…I used to hope I would raise my daughters together with their father. But their father didn’t come to see his daughters even once. Now my biggest hope is to get a job in order to provide for my children’s needs.”


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