Early marriages in South Caucasus: Underage girls as a political tool

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After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, religious and traditional restrictions were softened. Beside other nations, South Caucasian nations also enjoyed the freedom of going back to their own traditions and religions. Unfortunately, the “comeback of nations” in the Caucasus first hit women who faced oppression under patriarchal hegemony. Given a chance, mullahs and clerics emancipating from the atheistic Soviet Union started to enact Islamic laws and perform religious marriages for 12–15 years-old girls.

 

Only a week ago, a scandal covering Georgia and Azerbaijan brought ‘early marriage’ to public focus again. A video and photos showing an 11-12 years-old girl’s engagement ceremony were released on social media. The video’s sender to the feminist community claimed it had been recorded in Ponichala village, located only a few kilometres away from Georgia’s capital city Tbilisi. 

Beyond Ponichala village, the Kvemo-Kartli district starts, mostly inhabited by ethnic Azerbaijanis. Accommodating 700,000 people, this district is difficult to be identified as a part of Georgia because schools serve in Azerbaijani, chairperson and councillors of city councils, all key workers, including teachers, are ethnic Azerbaijanis. Life in this district has been ruled based on local people’s traditions, religious beliefs, and mentalities that date back hundreds of years. 

Marrying underage girls off is also a part of this mentality. Ethnic Azerbaijanis, as a rule, try to marry their daughters off by 15-16 age.   

The legal age for marriage is 18 in Georgia. However, ethnic Azerbaijanis take advantage of a religious marriage (“nikah” in Islam) as an alternative to a legal one. Once engagement, wedding and nikah ceremonies are done, the couple is considered “officially married”.  In most cases, a married underage girl is taken away from school by her parents. Consequently, she does not gain any qualification or profession. She becomes totally dependent financially on the man she is married to.

According to Georgian law, the age of maturity is 18, and marriage below this age is considered a criminal act. However, because early marriages continue to occur,  the Georgian government brought stricter changes to this law in 2016.

Georgian laws allow marriage under 18 only under certain circumstances. Although early marriage was allowed in exceptional circumstances based on the guardian’s permission before, since 2016, marriage around the ages of  16-17  requires a court order and only if it’s a case of teen pregnancy. Georgia has the highest rate of early marriage among European countries, according to a report by UNFPA in 2014.

This is calculated 19% for Moldova while it is 14% for Turkey. 659 marriages in which one of the partners was 16-18 years old were registered in Georgia in 2014.

As shown in a 2018  annual report by human rights defenders in Georgia, most marriages with underage partners are not officially registered. According to this report, 738 underage people became parents, and 715 of them were females.

Interestingly, hospitals and clinics delivering the babies of “teenage mothers” and public institutions registering those new-born babies are aware of the mothers being married between 13–15. Similarly, local police cannot be unaware of these child-brides’ wedding ceremonies taking place in their area. In a nutshell, it seems impossible that government agencies are unaware of these marriages.

Then why doesn’t the Georgian government clamp down on these marriages?

Ethnic Azerbaijanis comprise around 25% of the total population of Georgia. This community, which lives and acts based on traditions, not laws, doesn’t show a visible interest in education and has become a somewhat “guaranteed” electorate in elections. Every new coming government reaches an agreement with this community’s chairpersons; thus, securing sufficient numbers of votes from this region.

Obviously, for every new coming government, applying stiff penalties to prevent early marriage in this region means firstly raising social disturbance in the region involving a quarter of the whole country. This is likely to result in them losing their “guaranteed” electorate.  And the Georgian government do not want to cause trouble for themselves. Thus, cabinets replace one another. Power passes in other hands, but child-marriages in Kvemo-Kartli show an increasing trend instead of decreasing year by year.

Compromising with an ethnic minority on their vagary, allowing them to maintain their tradition legally, turning a blind eye to such a criminal act for the sake of political interests is not only witnessed in Georgia.

The same could be seen among another ethnic group, Yazidis, who live in Armenia. According to a recent census, nearly 40,000 Yazidi live in Armenia, while the Yazidi community claim real numbers are twice as high.

Marrying girls off at a young age is common in Yazidi culture, too. The Armenian government brought changes to the law after facing the Yazidi community’s protests: the legal age for marriage decreased to 16 (on condition that parents of the girl give permission and a prospective husband is over 18).

Thus, the marriage of underage females became partially legalized in one more country.

The highest number of “child-brides” in the region is in Azerbaijan. 92% of the 10 million people are Muslims there. Because Islam allows families to marry their daughters off once they start menstruating, Muslim societies are open to marrying daughters off around 12-14.

In law, the legally permitted age for marriage is 18 in Azerbaijan, too. However, just as in Georgia, all underage marriages are done with the help of “kabin”, a religious marriage contract, by mullahs and a wedding ceremony, and exclude legal procedures.

Although several feminist organizations regularly raise awareness against early marriage and its possible negative consequences, such cases still exist. For example, the number of early marriages was 388 in 2018, while 366 in 2019. However, these numbers reflect only officially revealed cases, and real numbers are anticipated to be much higher than that.

Article 10 of the Family Code of the Azerbaijan Republic indicates those who force an underage girl to get married are criminally responsible. They are expected to be fined from 3,000 to 4,000 AZN and imprisoned for 4 years.

Investigations show that the law is mostly broken in the Central Aran and Southern regions and even in some suburb villages of Baku. Experts report the underlying reason for marrying underage females off in these regions is their parents’ unwillingness to support them to further their education.

Interestingly, only 30 years ago, in other words, before USSR’s disintegration, there was no significant problem in terms of early marriage. Likewise, not sending schoolgirls to school was impossible in these three countries mentioned in the article. The government exercised rigorous control to prevent school dropout and child marriage cases.  In the Soviet period, no mullah (an Islamic cleric) would have dared to write a religious marriage contract, “Kabin”, for an underage girl — in the Soviet Union, clerics were already under close surveillance, none of them was willing to put themselves at risk.

No doubt, it was not because the Soviet Union government paid significant attention to women’s rights, which was supposed to be one of the ideologically socialist state’s prime goals from the early years. The reason was simple: The soviet government considered women’s active engagement in manufacture highly crucial. From factories and plants in cities to farms and fields in villages, everywhere was full of women working as cheap labour. Therefore, the Soviet government would not have agreed to allow females to get married at an early age, give birth to a baby, and stay away from the manufacturing process. Consequently, there was strict demand that schoolgirls finish their education, then engage in manufacturing beside boys. Parents who prevented their daughters from studying and married them off forcedly were penalized severely and exposed to public embarrassment.

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, religious and traditional restrictions were softened. Beside other nations, South Caucasian nations also enjoyed the freedom of going back to their own traditions and religions. Unfortunately, the “comeback of nations” in the Caucasus first hit women who faced oppression under patriarchal hegemony. Given a chance, mullahs and clerics emancipating from the atheistic Soviet Union started to enact Islamic laws and perform religious marriages for 12–15 years-old girls.

Subsequently, one of the primary goals of political powers in the Caucasus became forming societies that were busy with their traditions and religious beliefs, uneducated, politically unconscious, and indifferent to social problems. Government-nation agreement appeared in the form of “vote for me in the election, and I will not take action against your illegal acts in return”. A dream of an “obedient and guaranteed electorate” came true at the expense of female children taken out of the school and married off.         

 

Cover image: Internet

Gunel Movlud was born in 1981 in Azerbaijan. As a pursued Azeri journalist, translator, and poet, she has been living in Norway as an ICORN writer since 2016, where she has won the “Words on Borders” poetry prize in 2017. In 2019, she was published in Aschehoug anthology of refugee poets, To kiss a desert. To kiss a wall. Gunel is a women’s rights activist and writes against violence, oppression, and injustice.

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