Azerbaijan International

Winter 1995 (3.4)
Pages 80-82

UNHCR's Sheep Project
Seeking Economic Independence for Women

by Kaiser Zaman

Left: UNHCR's Sheep Project which is being administered by Azerbaijani NGO, Hayat. The intention of the project is to empower women economically.

Nigar Mustafayeva (Nee-GAR Mu-sta-FA-yev-a) looked somewhat bemused as a truck pulled into the schoolyard and men began unloading sheep. Weeks before, representatives from Hayat, an Azerbaijan humanitarian relief organization, had asked her if she would like to raise some sheep. She didn't quite know what to make of the offer.

Prior to this, Hayat had provided food, clothing and winter boots, but there had never been any offers for live animals, a project initiated and sponsored by UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) with field assistance from Hayat.

Nigar Khala (Aunt Nigar) as she is traditionally called, and her daughter, Mushgunaz, live with eleven other families in a rundown school building. Nigar Khala doesn't know exact how old she is but guesses she was about ten when World War II broke out.

She looks like a grandmother though she really isn't one. A long time ago, she had been married but the relationship had ended even before her daughter had been born. She never remarried-and her daughter, now well past 30, never married. They are part of the extended family of her two brothers, their wives, children and grandchildren.

Left: Refugee" by Razim Babayev. Early 90s. Oil on Canvas. The word "refugee" is "gachgin" in Azerbaijani which literally means "runner". Babayev has painted his refugees with multiple feet to show that their lives are never settled. Azerbaijani refugees who fled Armenia have been "on the run" since 1988 and 1989. Those from the Karabakh region which is now occupied by Armenians, have been uprooted since 1992.

Two years ago, she and her neighbors were living comfortably in the village of Khalafli in the Jabrail region in the southwest corner of Azerbaijan not far from the Iranian border. Life had been fairly simple though

not without hardship. They worked hard and lived a fairly contented life. They had the basic necessities and paid virtually nothing for electricity, gas, and water. They had a television and a few household appliances. There were gardens, fruit trees, sheep and poultry. It was a relatively peaceful life. Basically, the State took care of everyone.

Left: Refugee woman signs contract for five sheep promising not to sell them the first year.

Becoming a Refugee
The residents of Khalafli could never have imagined that Armenian aggression in Azerbaijan's territory of Nagorno Karabakh, north of them, could spill over into their region and turn their lives upside down. But on August 22, 1993, it did just that. With half an hour's notice, the villagers had to flee for their lives. Grabbing a few belongings, they managed to scramble aboard a passing train. One hundred miles later, they reached Salyan Station in southeastern Azerbaijan not too far from the Caspian Sea.

The villagers were confronted with a brand new world whether they wanted it or not. The local community assisted them in settling in to one of the schools on the collective farm (kolkhoz). There are few amenities. Usually, one family is assigned to a single room but sometimes there are two or three. Privacy is non-existent. Most of the doors and windows are dilapidated and broken. In the wintertime, damp winds penetrate the unheated rooms. Families try to improvise plastic sheets to cover the windows. Throughout the country, UNHCR has started repairing hundreds of windows. Nigar Khala's school is scheduled for next year.

There's problems with toilets-or rather the lack of them. The roof leaks and the electrical wiring is a mess and presents a serious safety hazard. UNHCR is working to re-wire many of the buildings, to provide VIPs (ventilated improved pit latrines), to make water connections, and to build standpipes and wash troughs. In many places, they have been able to paint the walls, which, in turn, makes an incredible difference to the morale and the standard of cleanliness. To prepare bread and food, women scrounge wood to build fires out in the yard. In winter, they somehow manage to cook over simple kerosene or electric burners in their rooms when they can get access to fuel.

Concept for Sheep Project
It was at a governmental luncheon that the idea for the Sheep Project developed. The UNHCR as one of the leading agencies helping the internally displaced persons in Azerbaijan since 1993. Quite early on, we recognized that emergency assistance could not be sustained indefinitely so we started looking for ideas so the displaced people could make a living while they waited to return to their villages and towns and resume their normal lives. (Armenians still occupy 20% of Azerbaijan's territory though there is a cease-fire in the war).

A typical Azeri meal was served at that luncheon. It included three traditional lamb dishes-boiled lamb, lamb kebabs, and grilled lamb chops. The idea slowly dawned that a sheep project was bound to succeed.

Why couldn't displaced people take care of sheep? Such a project wouldn't need central management. The responsibility would fall on the people themselves. Returns could be profitable and fairly quick, and the animals could follow the refugees home when the land is returned.
More importantly, raising sheep was something that women could do. Though by law, men and women are equal in Azerbaijan, social norm and practice suggest otherwise. A source of income would also provide women with more status. Nigar Khala's monthly pension is 10,000 manats (about $2.50 which won't even buy her a kilo of meat).

Left: UNHCR has already distributed more than 2,000 sheep to 400 woman-led families as a pilot project for economic independence. Each woman receives five sheep. The UNHCR donated sheep are marked with blue tags. Autumn 1995.

Since independence, the safety net for the old, the infirm, children, and handicapped is full of gaping holes through which many are hitting the ground hard. Witness the number of old and handicapped begging in the streets of Baku and children begging or washing windshields, dodging between drivers.

Eventually, UNHCR decided to provide five sheep-all ewes-to each vulnerable displaced family headed up by a woman. Criteria were quite strict. The women chosen could not be supported by a husband, father, brother, son or other male relative. Of the 1,000 women interviewed, 400 qualified.

A single ewe can produce between one to four lambs each autumn which means that within five years, a woman could own 30-40 sheep her family access to wool, milk for yogurt and butter. The thick wool hide could provide a warm covering on cold concrete floors in winter.

A contract was drawn up to prohibit sale or slaughter of the sheep for the first year so that the project would have a chance to get started. Most women had never signed a contract in their lives and were a bit hesitant until they realized that the terms protected their own best interests.

By October this year, Hayat had distributed nearly 2,000 sheep to 400 families. The pilot project, truly a "grassroots" project if there ever was one, has been extremely successful and plans are being made to introduce it in other regions. The women have quickly organized collective grazing. Nigar Khala wakes early each morning to add her sheep to the community flock. Sometimes, she takes her turn with help from her extended family. Each UNHCR sheep has an unremovable blue ear tag with a number on it, and the women are quite inventive in adding a bit of color or in shaving off part of the sheep's wool so they can personally identify their own.

When I told Nigar Khala and her friends that Sadako Ogata, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, was also a woman, their faces lit up in surprise. Immediately, they asked me to convey their thanks and invite her to visit them someday. They promised to mark the event with a great feast. They would make it a great day in her honor-by slaughtering a sheep and preparing lamb dishes-what else!

Kaiser Zaman is Head of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees) in Azerbaijan.

From Azerbaijan International (3.4) Winter 1995.
© Azerbaijan International 1995. All rights reserved.

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