“The Sooner She’s Married, the Better” Forced Marriages in Georgia's Azerbaijani community
A few days ago, less than a month since the scandalous story of the betrothal of an 11-year-old Azerbaijani girl in the Georgian village of Ponichala, a photo was shared on social media from the betrothal of another underage girl. The photo was first posted by an Azerbaijani blogger. “Another ‘parental’ crime! This is Georgia. Let’s share [this photo] and save the child, let’s punish the parents! Let’s say ‘no’ to underage and incestual marriages. Girls should go to school and get an education,” he commented.
In the photo, the girl is holding a tray with cups of tea. According to Azerbaijani customs, sweet tea served to the suitor’s representatives at an engagement ceremony symbolizes the consent of the prospective bride’s parents to the marriage.
According to the blogger, after posting the photo he was inundated with calls from Georgian numbers with threats, insults, and demands to delete it. Meydan TV was able to call one of the numbers. According to the person who answered the phone, he is merely an acquaintance of the girl’s family.
“The girl is 17, and this was just a betrothal. They’ll have the wedding only after she turns 18,” he told Meydan TV, although he refused to reveal the girl’s name or location.
The law doesn’t help
Georgia occupies second place among the countries of Eastern Europe in terms of the number of underage marriages, although the country’s official marriage age is 18. The law on marriage became stricter in 2016, and now marriage at 16-17 is allowed only by the decision of a court and only in special cases, such as after the birth of a child. Nevertheless, according to the latest Social Institutions and Gender Index, published by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in May 2019, 14% of girls in Georgia aged 15-19 are married. An annual report on human rights published by Georgian activists stated in 2018 that the majority of underage marriages are unregistered. Underage marriages occur primarily in Adjara and the Kvemo-Kartli region, where there are concentrated populations of ethnic Azerbaijanis.
Meydan TV took a survey on the streets of the majority ethnic Azerbaijani Marneuli region of Georgia which also confirmed this fact.
“When I got married, my wife was 15,” Marneuli resident Ruslan Sadigov told us. “In our mentality, if you look at it that way, it’s allowed. At 11, yeah, that’s too early, but at 14-15, I don’t think that’s a problem. I mean, getting an education isn’t that important.”
“I’m from a village myself, and I would say that a majority of the people I know in the village get married underage,” said Gulgun Mammadkhanova, a student at Tbilisi State University.
According to Gulgun, underage marriages are relics of the past, supported mostly by the older generation.
“Young people are starting to think that they should get an education and a profession, establish themselves,” she said. “But the older generation has this belief that the earlier you get married, the better.”
“We witness new underage marriages almost every day,” activist Tozu Gulmammadli told Meydan TV. “People are really upset about it only because the video [of the betrothal in Ponichala] was shared on social media. We have spoken before about the relevance of this problem.”
“According to the data we have, the highest indicator for underage marriages is in Tbilisi, and I think it’s because of Ponichala,” Shalala Amirjanova, a women’s rights activist in Georgia, told Meydan TV in an interview. “The problem also exists in Kvemo-Kartli and Kakheti, but it’s particularly serious in Ponichala, where there are more and more such incidents, and they call it a tradition.”
Social media to the rescue
The betrothal of the underage girl in Ponichala (her fiancé, by the way, is also underage—15 according to relatives—and he is the girl’s first cousin) caused a major uproar. The video spread very rapidly among Azerbaijani social media users, who demanded a harsh reaction from the Georgian authorities.
Azerbaijan’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Sabina Aliyeva, also reacted to the incident. On February 8, she officially appealed to her Georgian counterpart, Ombudsman Nino Lomjaria. In response to a query from Meydan TV, Sabina Aliyeva’s office replied that “taking into account that this is a serious incident and it occurred in an Azerbaijani family, we asked the relevant Georgian government agencies to carry out an investigation and take necessary measures to defend the rights of the underage girl.”
On February 9, the Georgian Interior Ministry responded by launching an investigation into the crime of “forced marriage,” but a month later the public still had no information about the course of the investigation or the outcome. It is known only that the girl’s parents were summoned for questioning but, as they told Meydan TV, the issue is not a marriage, but a betrothal, and therefore no criminal case will be brought against them.
Georgia’s Deputy Ombudsman, Ekaterina Shkiladze, told Meydan TV that the Ombudsman’s Office had the situation under control.
“We submitted requests to all the relevant agencies—the ministries of Education, the Interior, Health, and Labor and Social Security—and asked them for information about the incident and related actions taken,” said Shkiladze. “For us it is important to determine what this was—an incident of domestic abuse or negligence on the part of the family. Right now we are collecting and analyzing all the necessary information.”
The Ombudsman’s Office also promised to complete its inquiry into the betrothal “very soon and announce its conclusions on its official site.”
Shkiladze also admitted that underage marriages are fairly widespread in Georgia, which is related in part to the “ineffectiveness” of the measures taken by government agencies to deal with the problem.
“Girls are told from early childhood that they’re strangers in their own home”
Shalala Amirjanova thinks that, although the incident in Ponichala served as a bad example, it is good that it generated such an uproar.
“People see that the public gets upset about these things and protests against them, and so they try to exonerate themselves, saying ‘it’s our tradition.’ But that’s a mistake, you can’t do that. Therefore, as activists, we try to demonstrate that this has nothing to do with Azerbaijani national traditions,” states Amirjanova.
According to activist Tozu Gulmammadli, Azerbaijani families try to marry off their daughters as early as possible in order to shed their responsibility for them:
“I would say that gender roles are the main issue. An opinion has emerged about girls that they are superfluous in the household, they’re second class, and so they are raised specifically for marriage. Girls are told that that have nothing to do with their own home, they are strangers and they need to get married, while boys are perceived as continuing the family line.”
What about the government? The schools? The police?
“There’s another problem here related to schools. What’s going on in the schools? In theory, every parent is obligated to send their child to school, otherwise they are guilty of neglect and in violation of the law. But schools don’t register girls who are not allowed to attend. School principals do not inform the ministry promptly. Although if the principal informed the ministry promptly, then these incidents could be prevented, while the girl is still only engaged, for example,” says Gulmammadli.
According to the activist, the police are often aware of underage betrothals, “but they don’t interfere, they don’t want to stir up the public by publicizing these incidents.”
Gulmammadli, who has experience working with victims of domestic abuse in Georgia, says that she has seen instances where girls who were forced into underage marriages ran away from home:
“If the child runs away and turns to the police, then either the parents are brought to justice, or the person who was supposed to marry her is arrested. I can’t say that the system works perfectly, because the government’s resources are insufficient. I mean, this is how it works—the girl runs away from home, her parents are charged with a crime, and she lives in a shelter until she turns 18. Once she is a legal adult, she has to leave the shelter, and then they try to reconcile her with her family. Overall I can’t say that the system works well here.”
Breaking the chains
22-year-old Gulgun Mammadkhanova, a third-year student at Tbilisi State University, is from the village of Tekali in the region of Marneuli. Two of her older sisters were married underage, but Gulgun believes that a 14-year-old girl’s place is in school.
“Right now she should be going to school and studying. Marrying off girls at that age is a bad habit, a disease even. And it is already ingrained in our consciousness,” says Gulgun. “Whether a girl or a boy, they must be supported to get an education. As a rule, underage marriages occur at the insistence of the older generation. They are the ones that usually support early marriage. And not only girls, boys also are the victims of underage marriages.”
According to the student, she avoided an underage marriage herself thanks only to her own persistence, although “like the whole village,” her family began to talk about marriage as soon as she turned 13.
According to a study by UN Women, among ethnic minorities in Kvemo-Kartli, about 40% of women never finished middle school, about 7% of women received no education at all, and only 5% were university graduates.
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