In Azerbaijan another case of bullying brings old problems to the fore

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

When a video footage of a high school student being ruthlessly bullied by her former classmate resurfaced on social networks in Azerbaijan in February 2024, it served as a reminder that bullying remains an ongoing issue that the state — which says that the issue is not solely theirs to resolve — has done little to address. In a recent press interview, Chairperson of the State Committee for Family, Women and Children Affairs Bahar Muradova said that “what happened was not due to lack of [preventive] work,” but “so long as people and society exist, bullying will remain a problem.”

Experts disagree. It is not so much the society as a whole, but the way violence is normalized and disregarded in traditional societies like Azerbaijan, that is at the root of the problem. There are other factors too. According to sociologist and former school psychologist Umay Akhundzade, lack of trust between parents and their children, lack of teachers’ attention, uncooperative parents, and overall lack of mechanisms implemented on a school level to deal with bullying, contribute to bullying remaining a common problem.

In 2019, the story of Elina Hajiyeva, a teen who died from suicide by jumping from the third floor of her school building, sent shockwaves across Azerbaijan. It also sparked a social media campaign against bullying in a country where the topic is rarely discussed. Despite Hajiyeva's numerous complaints to the school principal, no action was taken. The punishment eventually handed to the school principal also seemed insufficient.

According to researcher Lala Mahmudova, who in 2019 wrote a piece on bullying at Azerbaijani schools, in cases where there is no official documentation of instances of bullying, the lack of response of the school administration is not surprising:

In Azerbaijan, one of the countries where homophobia is most prevalent, it is very common among students to insult each other with homophobic epithets and obscenities.

Due to the scarcity of statistical data on Azerbaijan, it is not possible to study the extent to which conditions which contradict the principles of social justice, such as bullying, homophobia, sexism, and hate speech, are prevalent in schools today.

According to a 2019 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “in Baku (Azerbaijan), 36% of students reported being bullied at least a few times a month, compared to 23% on average across OECD countries.”

The most recent data released by PISA noted that “Azerbaijan had one of the smallest changes between PISA 2018 and PISA 2022 in the percentage of students that reported that other students made fun of them at least a few times a month. (-10.9 % points, rank 50/52 , 2022).” Out of 7,912 students who responded to the 2022 survey, “some 21% of girls and 21% of boys reported being the victim of bullying acts at least a few times a month.”

State measures

Azerbaijan does not have any anti-bullying laws. At the time of Elina Hajiyeva's suicide, recommendations to develop a bill felt through. Instead, some schools started removing window handles and installing metal bars to prevent their students from similar attempts.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education released a promo video about bullying, encouraging students, parents and teachers to speak up. The video received mixed responses. According to a Jam-News report, some users applauded the ministry for the initiative, while others accused it of avoiding responsibility.

In February 2023, the Ministry launched a pilot project, “Student Behavior Rules at General Educational Institutions,” across 300 schools. The aim of the project was to ensure “physical safety, psychological health, [and a] favorable learning environment,” including preventing bullying. The school where the most recent act of bullying occurred was among the schools that participated.

It is one thing to adopt a document, however, and another to ensure that the measures are implemented. Education expert Elshan Gafarov believes schools must adopt internal regulations. In an interview with Abzas Media, Gafarov said these regulations must define the attitudes and behavior of teachers, students and parents towards school and education, and it must be made compulsory for parents — together with their children — to pledge to follow them. “Those who fulfill these rules and procedures can be awarded while those who don't must be punished,” Gafarov added.

There is a scene in the Ministry of Education video in which the teacher speaks to the bully in the presence of the student being victimised, but some educators say this approach is not every effective. “If a child has become a victim of bullying, there is no sense in conversations between teachers and the bullies about moral and ethical norms,” said one deputy head of a private school in Baku in an interview with OC Media. As long as schools won't implement internal rules and regulations on bullying, these kind of prophylactic conversations have little impact. Schools should not only demand an immediate end to physical, verbal and non-verbal violence but the abuser must face consequences, including thorough investigation, during which time the bully is suspended. If the behavior persists, expulsion from the school should be the next step.

This measure however, was not taken by the school where the act of bullying occurred last month. According to Meydan TV, the student who committed the act of bullying remained in school and parents say this was not the first time the female student bullied someone at the school or used profane language to target others. The girl's parents were warned multiple times; however, no further measures were taken against their daughter.

According to Meydan TV, the only thing that has been done is that school administration has had a conversation with the bully and her family. The principal went as far as to call her behavior a simple joke, despite the fact that the Ministry of the Interior said it was investigating the case given that the act contained elements of hooliganism.

Raising awareness and changing attitudes

Researcher Lala Mahmudova says that “the fight against bullying is a multi-step and multifaceted process. Each school should treat bullying prevention as a priority in its action plans, and should take a number of preventative measures over the course of the school year.” This is not easy feat, given that such measures involve a range of actors — from district education departments and local executive authorities, to all education-related institutions — making anti-bullying programs their priority, instituting them, and following up through robust auditing mechanisms. All this would need to be in addition to instituting regular awareness raising measures among students in schools through the distribution of informative flyers, class discussions, training on preventive measures, and victim support.

It is also important to get rid of social stigmas like victim blaming or the notion of “snitches.” In an interview with OC Media, Akhundzade said, “People [in a traditional society like in Azerbaijan] feel powerless to abuse and aggression, but instead of acknowledging that, they resort to victim blaming.” The latter also applies to the family dynamic, as children are often hesitant to speak to their parents for fear of being victim blamed by them, or being seen as “snitches.”

Instead, children should be encouraged to speak up, seek help, and learn to support those who are victims — but change is not easy, especially when it requires stepping out of comfort zones and away from deeply embedded beliefs. The most recent case of bullying speaks volumes about the challenges that lie ahead for Azerbaijani society, and how much work is yet to be done. Following the suicide of 14-year-old Elina Hajiyeva, there was some hope that her story would serve as a precedent in punishing the perpetrators and adopting preventive measures. Five years later, it seems neither has come to pass.

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