Child Marriage is still an ever-present issue throughout the world, and is most widely known and understood in Africa and the Middle East by the general public, but in Europe and the wider Western countries knowledge of child marriage in the Caucasus is limited.
There is a lack of information and awareness of the causes of child marriage as well as the number of child brides in the region. This is further exacerbated by the division of the region between the North Caucasus and the South Caucasus. Whereas some information is available on examples of child marriage in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, there is limited information in widely available resources of examples in Dagestan, Karachay-Cherkessia, Chechnya, North-Ossetia-Alania, or any of the other five Autonomous republics of the Russian Federation.
In 2017, building upon primary research conducted between 2015 and 2016 in Georgia and Azerbaijan, Asfar’s researchers carried further research on the issue of child marriage throughout the Caucasus. This article will briefly provide a background to the issue together with information on Asfar’s initial findings.
The key causes of child marriage in the Caucasus:
- Gender inequality
- Traditional beliefs and customs
- Socio-economic conditions and poverty
Gender equality: with the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Caucasus states reverted to traditional social roles. Girls and women are still linked to the home, especially amongst minority communities based in small towns and villages. Furthermore, the high value of chastity and the social stigma linked to pre-marital relationships, plus the general lack of value attached to a girl (considered a burden to the family) in contrast to boys, considered an asset) have all contributed to the continued practice of early marriage in the region.
Traditional beliefs and customs: amongst certain ethnic groups in the Caucasus child marriage is an accepted practice within their communities and has been a tradition for hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years. Furthermore, some of the region’s communities believe it is decreed by their religion, especially amongst Islamic, Christian and Yezidi societies.
Socio-economic conditions and poverty: marriage, like traditional beliefs and customs, serves to strengthen social bonds and links amongst families, especially amongst tribal groups and villages. There is also a significant economic element to child marriage because marriage indicates success and stability and may improve a family’s social standing. Some of the secondary research available indicated that the Soviet Union’s collapse directly resulted in an increase in early marriage, in order to ensure a girl’s and a family’s economic stability. A girl has limited economic opportunities, whereas a son-in-law can work and support a girl and the wider family. Instability is also linked to poverty, and that further influences early marriage. A daughter marrying early reduces a family’s financial burden, and that is especially significant if a family is living in poverty. Furthermore, for those families especially affected by poverty as well as instability and regional conflict, early marriage can strengthen a family’s culture and reduce its poverty and hardship, while protecting a girl and her honour from the risk of sexual violence.
Child marriage in individual Caucasus states
Armenia: In 2014, UNICEF estimated at least 7% of girls in Armenia are married by 18 years of age. However, this is believed to be an under-estimate due to the illegal and unregistered nature of early marriages.
Child marriage occurs mainly amongst pastoralist Yezidis and other ethnic minorities in Armenia, who make up approximately 2.3% of the population. The pastoral nature of the Yezidi communities, make it very difficult to monitor the level of early marriages, with some children’s birth not even being registered. The birth of a child to a young mother, is a major indicator that an early marriage has taken place. Furthermore, the Yezidis are beyond Armenia’s educational, health and social services due to their communities pastoral structure. Yezidi girls and women, have particularly lower literacy and educational attainment compared with their village, town and city peers. This further increases social exclusion and ensures the future of early marriages.
In 2011, Lusine Avagyan compiled a report for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting entitled ‘Armenia: Yezidi girls fated for teen marriage’ and indicated that despite the existence of organisations to help child brides, girls from the Yezidi community rarely seek help and support. Marriage for Yezidi women is both socially important and is also about women’s pride especially on having large families. The earlier a marriage takes place, the larger a family can be, which increases a woman’s significance in her community.
According to Avagyan a representative of the Women’s Resource Center in Yerevan indicated she did not recall any Yezidi girl appealing for help to avoid an early marriage or to split from a marriage after it had taken place.
The Armenian state is also tied by Soviet exceptionalism, which allowed Yezidis communities to be exempted from adhering to the legal age of marriage, which has resulted in recent rejections of legislation to end child marriages. Inevitably, the isolated nature of many Yezidis communities means that Armenian government officials struggle to monitor the situation or impose change on the level of child marriages.
Azerbaijan: Although in 2014, UNICEF identified that only 2% of Azerbaijani girls were married by the age of 15 and 11% by 18 years, it is accepted that these statistics are under-estimates due to illegal marriages and state unregistered marriages. In 2006, data indicated that 10% of 15 to 19 year olds were married or divorced (9.9% married and 1% divorced). 1% is an extremely high divorced rate for this age group. In comparison, for boys aged 15 to 19 only 0.1% were married and another 0.1% were separated/divorced. 30% of women were married by the age of 20 years old, compared with just 3% of men.
Between 1980 to 1998, the number of children born to girls aged 15 to 19 years tripled (UNICEF, 2014). According to UNICEF, early marriage (and bride kidnapping) was quite common in pre-Soviet times and during Soviet times it experienced a rapid decline. During the pre-Soviet era UNICEF indicated that girls married aged 14 to 18, while poorer families arranged marriages for girls aged 10 to 12 years of age. This included both arranged and examples of bride abductions.
Bride abduction, which is still common throughout the Caucasus as well as neighbouring countries such as Turkey, fall into two categories: consensual and non-consensual. Consensual can be further broken down into those with and without family awareness. Consensual abductions with family awareness, may take place for economic as well as social reasons. Both in Azerbaijan and neighbouring countries, early marriage can an occur due to a direct threat of bride abduction. Most families prefer to arrange an early marriage, than to have a daughter abducted.
Where a bride abduction is not consensual, there exists real risk of blood feud and it is in both families’ best interests to resolve this as soon as an abduction has occurred. Often a blood feud is avoided through the groom’s family paying reparations to the girl’s family. If a blood feud occurs, it will have social and economic consequences for both families, with both the bride and the groom at risk.
Current data indicates that early marriages specifically occur in four of Azerbaijan’s regions: Absheron; Guba; Lenkaran; and Aghstafa (UNICEF, 2014). However, this is only based on child marriage statistics. In 2006, the DHS survey indicated that adolescents’ pregnancies were most common in Ganja-Gazakh, Lankaran, Yukhari-Garabakh and Aran. Although a teenage pregnancy does not necessarily indicate child marriage, Azerbaijani society is highly conservative and child bearing outside of marriage is generally not acceptable. Based on this, it is likely that these teenage pregnancies, were also examples of early marriages, although they were not registered with the state, which is a common indicator of a child marriage. The majority of marriages in Azerbaijan are also Islamic marriages. Early marriages are conducted by local Mullahs and in spite of agreements between the Islamic Council and the state, these are often not officially recorded as is legally required.
Early marriage is particularly common amongst Azerbaijan’s internally displaced communities (approx. 582,000 people in 2016) and refugees (approx. 10,000 people) from Nagorno-Karabakh region.
As indicated above, early marriage is fundamentally linked to chastity, modesty and honour, as well as the patriarchal structure within families and the role of women in society, and is significant for understanding the cause of child marriage in Azerbaijan.
The post-Soviet transition, war with Armenia, and an influx of refugees from Chechnya all created a deeply uncertain and unstable society, that prompted families to seek certainty in traditional values and customs. Early marriage is perceived to promote social stability, economic stability, and can be a status symbol for the families involved (UNICEF 2015).
While the UNICEF 2015 study did find a proportion of the marriages initiated by the girl herself, it does state that the majority were initiated by the parents and wider family. If a girl wishes to have an early marriage, parents almost universally supported this (UNICEF, 2016).
Azerbaijan, both on a state level and a social level, is increasingly trying to avoid discussions on early marriage and although officially illegal, on a community level, through the support of Islamic social figures such as Mullahs, it has become an acceptable practice.
While both international NGOs and local NGOs (especially those that are funded by international bodies such as the UN) have found it increasing difficult to address child marriage within Azerbaijan over the past 2-3 years. With recent state policies, it is believed that this will only become more difficult.
Georgia: In 2014, UNICEF indicated that approximately 1% of girls were married in Georgia by the age of 15, with 14% married by the time they turn 18. However, just as in Armenia and Azerbaijan, this is accepted to be an under-estimation due to illegal and unregistered child marriages. In February 2016 Georgia Today, a Georgian newspaper indicated that early marriage in Georgia stands at 17%.
Between 2011 and 2013, the Georgian Public Defender reported that 7,367 girls had left education. As indicated by Open Democracy (2016), marriage is the main reason for girls to leave education in Georgia.
Research by the Public Defender’s Office in Marneuli, home to a significant ethnic Azeri community, showed that 341 girls dropped out of school in 2011-12 to get married. Two of the girls had not turned 12 years old at the time (Ellena, 2015).
Marriage involving under-18s occurs throughout Georgia, but is most common in poor, under-developed regions including in Kakheti region in the east, Kvemo-Kartli in the southeast, and Ajara and Guria in the west, especially among religious and ethnic minorities.
Early marriage also occurs in the Pankisi Gorge, where it has taken place for centuries. While the local Council of Elders has banned the practice, the Muslim majority in the area, who primarily follow Wahhabism (Institute for War and Peace Reporting, 2015), a highly conservative type of Sunni Islam, which follows the Hanbali school, specifically the thoughts of Ibn Taymiyyah, which are the fundamentals of the Saudi state.
The 2014 UN Women report identified that ethnic minority women (primarily Armenian and Azeri) living in the Kveno Kartli region of Georgia are predominantly disadvantaged. This further leads to early marriage within their communities. For instance, women in the Kvemo Kartli region have a lower level of further and higher education compared with their peers in other regions, a lower level of proficiency in the Georgian language, low levels of employment (only 14% of women consider themselves employed), with the majority of women in the region with no personal income.
32% of Kvemo Kartli women are married before they turn 18. 5% of Kvemo Kartli women marry aged between 14-15 years old.
Similar to Azerbaijan, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, early marriage frequently takes place amongst Georgia’s Internally Displaced People (IDP), who fled regional conflicts in 1991-1992 and the more recent 2008 conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Child marriage is reported to occur more frequently amongst IDP communities due to financial issues, to promote stability and to protect girls from sexual assault (i.e. abduction).
The 2015 Ellena report does draw a distinction between urban child marriages, which are predominantly about legitimizing a relationship and those rural child marriages, where families seek to organize a marriage for financial/stability reasons and to avoid bride abductions.
As previously indicated, information on the profile of child marriages in the North Caucasus is extremely hard to come by as the majority of Russian statistical information is not broken down by both region and age group. The reliability of information on child marriage in the region must be questioned as the vast majority of available information in English is based on individual interviews, media stories, and reports from Human Rights organisations, rather than statistical data.
Ingushetia: very limited information is available on the situation of early marriage in Ingushetia. One case study, identified by Asfar’s researcher Eleanor Shaw included in the Russian Justice Initiative, 2015 indicated:
“The European Court for Human Rights communicated with the Russian government regarding a lack of investigation in the case of a young woman who was bride kidnapped and later returned to her mother’s home in a coma in 2015, demonstrating the lack of engagement of legal authorities in cases of bride kidnapping and other violations of women’s rights”
Eleanor Shaw further identified through the OC Media, 2017:
“While bride kidnapping is illegal under Russian law, the Ingushetia Council of Elders has also prohibited bride kidnapping in their role of de facto leaders of the Muslim community. The Ingushetia parliament has, as of 2017, instructed for the preparation of a law to increase the punishment of those convicted of bride kidnapping”
Dagestan: although there is plenty of information and research on bride abductions/early marriage from the 1800s and early 1900s (this can be read by requesting the Asfar report – more details below), there is limited secondary information on the current situation in Dagestan and requires further primarily research in the region.
Chechnya: many Human Rights organisations have repeatedly raised the issue of high level of child marriage and bride kidnapping in Chechnya. However, the Head of the State, Ramzan Kadyrov, has claimed that he has made child marriage illegal (although it was already illegal under Russian law), has attached astronomical fines to the crime, and has announced that bride kidnapping and child marriage have ceased as a result.
However, in 2015 a significant scandal broke when Kadyrov’s right hand man took a second wife who was 17 years old. It was reported in the Russian press that the marriage took place against the bride’s will and the journalist reporting the story fled the country amidst fears for her safety. Chechnya is subject to Federal Russian laws and regulations which prevent marriage under the age of 18, but do allow marriages at the age of 16 in certain situations. However, the Chechnyan republic has its own governmental structure and traditional practices such as second marriages are permitted, although not registered under Russian law. This means such brides have even less protection as they have no legal rights. The Chechnya Media and Information Minister was fired for ‘mismanaging the scandal’ and the Children’s rights ombudsman came out in favour of older men marrying teen brides (Tetrault-Farber, 2015). Clearly, it is extremely difficult to assess the nature of child marriage in Chechnya under such circumstances.
The impact of early marriage on girls is well understood and promoted throughout the world, especially in relation to prevention work in the Global South.
Mental and physical health issues are particularly risks to all girls pressured into early marriages and through the effects of child-bearing at such young ages. Child-bearing risks include: pre-eclampsia; prolonged labour; haemorrhages; severe anaemia; as well as poor health outcomes for the child.
Adolescents have an increased risk of death during and after child birth. Young mothers also risk isolation and depression due to the increase in their role and the adoption of increased tasks including domestic duties, child care and wider housework, exacerbated further by increased distance from family and friends who may not live in the same village or town.
A girl’s education is immediately affected, as in the majority of cases a girl leaves school upon marriage. This affects girls’ skills and economic status, preventing them participating in the work-force, now or in the future, increasing their dependence on their husbands and their wider family.
Alongside real health risks, lack of education and skills, and loss of economic participation, young girls in the Caucasus are at a greater risk of violence from their partners. This in turn causes greater mental and physical health issues.
And as the vast majority of girls come from poor, rural backgrounds and live in patrilineal societies there appears to be little opportunity to change their situations or prevent child marriage in the future unless a more robust strategy is developed and implemented in each country on a local-level with financial support from international funders.
From 2018 to 2023, the prevention of child marriage through the support, training and capacity building of our local partners in Georgia and Azerbaijan, is a key objective for Asfar.
To learn how you can be involved in working towards this strategy with Asfar, please email email@example.com
Asfar partner profile – Samtskhe Javakheti Media Center
Samtskhe-Javakheti Media Center (SJMC) is a non-governmental organisation that promotes the development of democratic processes, empowerment of civil society organisations, gender equality, youth involvement and strengthening of independent media in Samtskhe-Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli.
SJMC has been working in regions settled by ethnic minorities, since 2002, and actively use non-formal education, advocacy campaigns and multimedia components to address its’ goals.
Through its’ gender equality projects, it specifically works on promoting change amongst the communities SJMC supports on the issue of child marriage. Through its non-formal education and training programmes, SJMC works with both young people, women and wider families members on why child marriage is both bad for women and the community.
Thanks goes to Eleanor Shaw for volunteering her time to carry out desk research on child marriage in the Caucasus in Summer 2017.
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