The new acquaintances, knowledge and experiences I gained during the training contributed a great deal to me. The four days I spent in the camp were irreplaceable. The fun moments we had in the tent, supporting each other during the training, transmitting positive energy to those around us and the activities we engaged in were all wonderful. I am continuing with our project and have realised that there is a great need for such activities in my region.
The 100 Girls of Azerbaijan project champions human rights and gender equality and it empowers girls in Azerbaijan. Despite starting off on a zero budget, it has directly engaged nearly 500 young individuals aged 11-22 and conducted more than 10 gender equality-related training sessions and webinars across the country. The project was nominated as one of the top gender equality initiatives in the nation. In 2022, its leader was invited by the UNESCO SDG4YOUTH Network to participate in the Transforming Education Summit 2022 during the UNGA77.
Our stories and voices from grassroots initiatives are important. Not being a native English speaker shouldn't be a barrier. European collaborations that enable people like us to share and work together are truly invaluable.
Rezida Rzayeva, the leader of 100 Girls of Azerbaijan, shares insights into the project’s development and its impact on young women’s lives
What led you to establishing the project?
I grew up in a rural region of the country. My journey to access quality education was filled with some challenges, discrimination and hardships. These personal experiences fueled my determination to ensure other girls didn’t face the same struggles.
In 2019, I attended the Juliette Low Seminar, which focuses on girl leadership and was organised by the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. While the seminar tasked us to engage with at least 100 girls in our communities, the approach was open-ended. Inspired by this, I envisioned a sustainable solution beyond just meeting the target. This was the idea that blossomed into the 100 Girls of Azerbaijan social initiative.
I officially launched this initiative in February 2021, amidst the pandemic, and on a shoestring budget. Its mission is to champion human rights, gender equality and empower girls in Azerbaijan.
Could you elaborate more on the challenges faced by girls in Azerbaijan?
Many parents in our community don’t encourage their daughters’ education beyond 14 or 15 years, as they believe girls should marry and obey their husbands. My grandmother expressed this when I decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree, saying, ‘Education is not for girls. In a family, boys should get educated since they are the future’s family leader, not girls.’ This mindset led to my male cousin, who never graduated, receiving support over me. I struggled for three years and eventually earned a government scholarship.
Another issue is early marriages, with a rise in teenage pregnancies reported by Azerbaijan’s State Committee. Selective abortions are also prevalent, where families often terminate pregnancies if expecting a girl, while celebrating the birth of a boy.
Therefore, my drive for this project is deeply rooted in my volunteer spirit and my desire to spare other girls from the challenges I once faced.
During youth events, many young people feel inspired but don’t take any subsequent steps. What motivated you to act following the Juliette Low Seminar?
I’m also a scout and serve as the international commissioner of the Association of Scouts of Azerbaijan. The association, recognising my interest in the empowerment of women and girls, nominated me to participate in the event.
The Juliette Low Seminar isn’t just any seminar; it’s a flagship event for Girl Guides and Girl Scouts worldwide. Juliette Low, who founded girl scouting in the United States, was never a biological mother, yet she was passionate about empowering girls. Many girls today refer to her as a ‘mother’ not in a biological sense, but as a source of inspiration. During my time at ‘Our Chalet’ in Switzerland (which means ‘Our Home’), we were treated like her daughters, and it was truly inspiring. It felt like we received the heritage by following her pathway! This experience made me reflect on both my personal development and on how I could make a difference in the lives of other girls.
Following that insightful moment at the seminar, my life changed. I started working to help and empower others, especially girls in Azerbaijan. Through this journey of empowerment, I realised that by empowering others, I was also empowering myself.
After coming back from the seminar and facing the pandemic, how did you adapt and choose the initial activities for your project?
Once I returned in 2020 and the pandemic hit, I leaned on the Scouts of Azerbaijan for support. They helped with resources and permissions. The first event for 100 Girls of Azerbaijan took place in Kupah, at a scout camp. The location was quite basic – there weren’t any modern tables or chairs. We had to rely on a bonfire for warmth, and attendees wore multiple layers of clothing to ward off the cold. Instead of modern presentation tools, I manually drew on notebook pages to explain concepts related to gender equality and the empowerment of girls, using minimal resources. The initial audience was composed of scouts, whom I trained as part of the project. Seeing the spark in their eyes and their enthusiasm was rewarding.
This modest beginning was the foundation for my application to the French-German gender prize in Azerbaijan. With the clear vision I had for the future of Azerbaijan, my initiative was not only recognised but also awarded as one of the top five gender equality projects, and stood out as the best in its category.
How has the local community responded to your initiative, especially in light of the international recognition you’ve received?
Gender equality and women’s issues aren’t very prominent in Azerbaijan. While it has gained some traction in recent years, if you were to go to any region in Azerbaijan and declare yourself a feminist or a gender equality activist, you’d likely face resistance. My uncle once cautioned me against delving too deep into feminism or gender equality when I mentioned my project. To many, these concepts seem irrelevant or alien to Azerbaijani culture. I reassured him, with a smile, that I was focusing on the ‘empowerment of girls’ rather than outright ‘gender equality’, even though they essentially mean the same thing. The challenge is that many people either lack proper information or have misconceptions about gender equality.
For example, when I went to one local community to implement a mentorship programme, I faced challenges obtaining permissions from families. The parents were very hesitant because they were unfamiliar with the concept of the programme. Most of them only allowed their daughters to attend school and not much else – even university was often out of the question for these girls. To address this, I partnered with a local club. Since the local community was familiar with its leaders, it gave us an edge. We made individual calls to each family, explained the programme’s intent and assured them of their daughters’ safety. We stressed that only girls would be involved in the activities and even offered to cover transportation costs.
Some of the participants had life-changing experiences during the programme. These might seem like small moments, but they were deeply impactful. Additionally, we organised trips to other cities. We visited theatres and, for many, it was their first time attending a theatre performance or even stepping outside of their home region.
Can you share a memorable experience from one of your training sessions in a remote village?
There was this particular instance that stands out. While in many cases mothers are initially hesitant, in one village, I witnessed a mother personally escorting her daughter to a training session. Not only did she accompany her, but she also sat through the entire session, listening intently. At the end, she approached me, expressing her desire to join our sessions as a participant. I had to explain that our primary target group was girls aged 15 to 25. This mother’s interest was rooted in the fact that few activities or events like ours are organised in the more remote regions of Azerbaijan. The most significant events typically take place in the capital or other major cities. Remote regions often lack easy access and transportation, making it challenging for residents to attend events unless they have personal vehicles.
How do you use online platforms to support gender equality and engage followers?
Online, our primary focus is on raising awareness around issues of gender equality and the empowerment of girls. We also spotlight local and international opportunities for our followers to get involved. Although our main audience is girls, we also have a significant number of male followers. Some of them, as well as several girls, often inquire about specific programmes or seek advice. I always strive to assist and support them in any way I can. It’s truly rewarding to see that some have even joined initiatives like the Erasmus + or European Solidarity Corps projects.
What changes do participants experience after the workshops?
We gathered their reflections post-workshop, where participants expressed a newfound awareness of opportunities. They highlighted how the masterclasses enabled them to articulate themselves better. After engaging in online sessions on mental health awareness and menstrual hygiene, they shared insights into learning about topics previously unknown to them or undiscussed with their parents due to cultural constraints. In Azerbaijani families, discussing menstruation is often taboo, which makes these talks particularly enlightening.
What is the biggest challenge that you have faced?
Initially, I was running everything on my own. Though there’s personal satisfaction in that, I realised the importance of team building for scalability and outreach. While many expressed an interest in volunteering, coordinating and integrating them into the project presented its own set of challenges. Building a cohesive team became essential.
Fortunately, I invited several talented individuals to join the team; two of them even represented 100 Girls of Azerbaijan at a conference in Germany. They shared their story of the initiative on television, appearing by invitation on the MAG (Modern Azerbaijani Youth) show on the Azerbaijani TV station ITV. Now our motivated team is running for the Harmony from South to North programme.
What is this new programme about?
As a team, we’ve been engaged in the Community Development Programme delivered by the Resource HUB since August 2023. Our assignment was to implement a community activity. We designed the Harmony from South to North programme for this purpose. This programme focuses on girls living in Lankaran, which is located in the southern part of Azerbaijan. This region is known for high rates of gender-based violence. I am personally familiar with this, as my roots are in the Yardymli district, which forms part of the southern region.
The programme also targets girls in Zagatala, in the northern part of Azerbaijan. Zagatala is a remote area that is often overlooked by social entities due to its distance from Baku. It takes about 7 hours to travel from Baku to Zagatala. Both Lankaran and Zagatala have unique cultures and experiences. Lankaran is home to the Talish people, while Zagatala has minor ethnic groups like the Tsakhurs. These diverse cultures contribute to Azerbaijan’s multicultural identity. Our project, 100 Girls of Azerbaijan, aims to empower girls across the country and promotes equality and cultural exchange.
The programme included in-person training sessions. These sessions focused on opportunities for the girls. We also conducted art masterclass workshops. These workshops allowed the girls to express their feelings through art. Additionally, we organised online workshops. These were named Girls Talks. They covered important topics like menstruation and mental health.
Our plan is to showcase the outcomes of this programme at the Communities Festival in Baku. This presentation will highlight our efforts and achievements.
What other plans do you have?
In the future, I aim to collaborate with groups across Azerbaijan and Europe. I already partnered with a group from Germany this year. My vision is for 100 Girls of Azerbaijan to inspire young women both locally and internationally. This collaboration is just the beginning, as I foresee a large network of individuals and organisations uniting to empower girls. To bring more international best practices to Azerbaijan and to implement more educational and impactful programmes!
Lamila Azizparticipant from Bilasuvar
I am Ravana from Barda. I first became acquainted with the 100 Girls of Azerbaijan social initiative through the Girls of Barda mentorship programme in 2021. I appreciated the opportunity to contribute ideas for the mentorship programme. My suggestion to use social theatre as a tool to highlight local gender issues in Barda was selected. Since topics like girls’ education and gender equality have always been my focus, I began participating in other related projects. Joining the 100 Girls of Azerbaijan social initiative has increased my access to opportunities, allowing me to develop skills in communication, leadership and project management. These skills were further honed when I became a project coordinator during the Harmony from South to North programme. I feel happy to be part of the 100 Girls of Azerbaijan family!
Ravana Babayevaproject coordinator of the Harmony from South to North programme
The 100 Girls of Azerbaijan initiative has garnered significant recognition. For example, it was nominated as one of the Local Solutions by the Global Youth Mobilisation. Moreover, its founder, Rezida Rzayeva, was chosen for her 100 Girls of Azerbaijan social initiative to participate in the prestigious Community Engagement Exchange Program in the USA!
100 Girls of Azerbaijan is highly active on social media. Visit their Instagram page to discover their goals, events, and participant experiences, all shared through vibrant audiovisual stories.
About the project
EU Youth Programme Priority:
Inclusion and Diversity
Youth Participation / Activism and Decision Making
Youth Participation / Promoting Participation for All
Youth Participation / Skills Development and Volunteering
The primary communication channel for the 100 Girls of Azerbaijan initiative, which is used to share inspiration and information among girls, is its Instagram account. By the end of 2023, it had amassed nearly 3 000 followers. In terms of recruitment for the programmes, Rezida Rzayeva mainly connects with girls in various regions through her extensive network, comprising local youth workers and stakeholders. Through collaborating with these partners, she utilises their comprehensive understanding of their regions. This strategy also offers reassurance to families, and it encourages them to feel more at ease about having their daughters participate in the activities.
100 Girls of Azerbaijan