Dilara Aliyeva won her first sports competition in running when she was 12 years old. But her real passion has always been football, and her ultimate dream was to become a football manager.
Growing up in the rural region of Gakh in northern Azerbaijan in the 1970s, however, the prospects were not good in a sport so dominated by men.
Dilara’s first application to study sports at university was rejected, so she enrolled at a higher education facility instead. But she didn’t give up her ambition.
‘I never thought it would be easy to make it as a woman in football,’ she says, ‘And it really wasn’t! Things didn’t go as I’d hoped. But you can’t stop loving something once you’re as hooked as I am on football so I carried on training and watching every day after work…’
Then things took a turn for the better in women’s sport when, in 2005, President Aliyev issued a decree instructing regions to create women football clubs for the first time in Azerbaijan.
Dilara soon became the first woman in the country to create a woman’s football club and her dedication was officially recognised with an award from the President.
Another major boost came when Dilara heard that a famous German coach for women’s football was coming to work in Azerbaijan. She jumped at the chance to enrol and became one of the first two women in the country to gain a diploma in football.
After graduating, Dilara went on to become a trainer and today she is currently passing on her skills and love of football to sixty young women in the Gakh region.
‘There’s a half-sad and half-happy story about our women’s team at the beginning,’ she says. ‘In the early days, many players kept their football a secret. They’d tell their parents they were just doing ‘athletics’! Then we had two of our girls called to play for the national team and the cat was truly out of the bag!’
The women Dilara had trained went on to play for Azerbaijan in the World Cup tournament of 2012.
The success of her management and training encouraged Dilara to think of other ways of helping young women to realise their ambitions in a society where prejudices still hinder women’s participation and progress in many areas of life –especially in sport.
‘It took me a while to believe I could actually change anything on a bigger scale,’ she says, ‘and I never expected to get involved in local government. But then I went along to some courses about ‘decision-making’ and it changed my ideas about what it’s possible to achieve for women and by women.’
The training sessions Dilara attended were focused on supporting the country’s achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, and in particular SDG 5, which calls for ensuring women’s full and effective participation and opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life.
The training is being implemented by the new mobile Gender-Based Municipal Academy launched by the EU, UNDP and the Government of Azerbaijan’s State Committee on Family, Women and Children Affairs in 2019.
The Academy is a non-formal education platform for women to increase their knowledge and skills in areas such as local governance, leadership and election observation.
One of the goals of the Academy was to help increase the number of women running for office in the December 2019 municipal elections by providing capacity-building and learning opportunities.
To help inspire women to participate in local government, the trainers at the Academy include women from parliament and other high-profile decision-making roles.
For Dilara the role-models she met on the course and the aims of SDG 5 were a decisive factor in her decision to stand for local election.
‘The trainers made me rethink what I might be capable of myself. And the more I learnt about the SDGs and empowering women the more I saw how that fits with my vision for women in sport.’
At the December 2019 elections, now aged 55, Dilara won her latest competition for running — this time as a municipal councillor in Gakh, her region of birth, with a population of 54,000.
Dilara is now running the local government youth committee, and her first priority is to boost the development of sport at municipal level and to support women’s participation in sport.
Since COVID-19 struck, Dilara spearheaded the efforts of her municipality to help low-income families cope with the pandemic by collecting essential products and delivering them to the poorest households, and advocating for people to wear masks, social distance and stay safe.
“We will come through this together. Meanwhile, we must do all that we can to slow to spread of the virus and look after each other”.
Out of 117 women who attended the Academy’s training sessions, all 117 ran for elections, and about 80% of them were elected. This has led to an almost 20% increase in the number of women municipal councillors who have been elected throughout Azerbaijan.
Story by Sandra Ismanovski.
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