Breaking the cycle: ending underage marriage in Georgia

Tbilis, Georgia (openDemocracy) – Tamuna, from the village of Khikhani in Georgia’s Marneuli region, got married three years ago. She’s 18 now, and has a two-year old child. Last December, Tamuna’s husband beat her severely and kicked her out. Tamuna doesn’t know what the future holds. She didn’t want to get married — in fact, she was abducted.

It’s difficult to know exactly how many girls like Tamuna become wives and mothers before their 18th birthday in Georgia. There are no official statistics. Many child marriages take place before the bride is even 16 years old. And given that ceremonies are held in churches or mosques, these marriages are usually never officially registered.  

Human rights defenders in Georgia confirm that the problem of child marriages is a pressing one. Its real scale is unknown, and existing legislation cannot resolve it without public pressure. According to data from the Women’s Movement of Georgia, four underage girls become mothers every day. This is a rough statistic, based only on registered marriages. No real data exists on unregistered marriages.

The department for gender equality at Georgia’s Public Defender periodically requests information concerning child marriages from various ministries. On the basis of these figures, it has a rough estimate of their number. For example, according to data from Georgia’s Ministry of Education, in 2015 alone 224 schoolchildren between the ages of 14 and 16, and 351 between 17 and 18, dropped out of high school on grounds of marriage.

Three Georgian women sew carpets in Tbilisi’s Old City, 2013. Photo CC: Pablo Andrés Rivero / Flickr. Some rights reserved.According to data from Georgia’s Ministry of Justice, 611 underage marriages were registered in 2015. Only 17 of these cases involved an underage boy, while 578 involved underage girls. In 16 cases, both parties to the marriage were underage.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) found that of all countries in eastern Europe, Georgia had the second most underage marriages (17%), behind Moldova (19%) and before Turkey (14%).

Tanaziari, an NGO working on rehabilitating Georgia’s refugee population, confirms this rise. Its director Khatuna Bechvaya, who works in the Shmegrelo-Upper Svanetia region of western Georgia, says that child marriages have increased in the area over the past few years. The number of children born to girls of 15 to 18 years old is an indirect indicator of early marriages. “We have no way of confirming underage marriages,” notes Bechvaya, “The only way to do it is by watching the maternity wards, when an underage mother comes to give birth.”

The hotspots

UNFPA’s 2014 report found that underage marriages in the Caucasus were widely distributed in areas with a low level of access to information and with a higher percentage of people with little in the way of formal education. In Georgia this tends to be either in high mountain villages, or in areas densely populated with ethnic minorities.

“It’s true that the majority of cases take place in Kakheti, Adjara and Kvemo Kartli,” says Nona Samkharadze, an expert in gender-related issues. “These remote, poorly developed regions of Georgia are often settled by ethnic and religious minorities. But the problem of underage marriages can’t be confined to certain named regions — this is first and foremost a general problem of gender inequality.”

In Nona’s words, this inequality can be encountered across other parts of Georgia. “A family’s main goal is often to ‘marry their daughter well’. I’ve heard of this practice in Gori, Samegrelo, Guria and in other regions of the country. But unfortunately the problem in these areas is poorly studied and there are almost no data.”

Tanaziari’s medical centre reported that last year alone, 38 underage girls were registered at the facility. This is much higher than earlier figures. “These health centres only exist in Zugdidi, the regional centre. And everywhere, the numbers are increasing. Even without official statistics we, people working in the field, can see a clear rise in underage marriages,” says Bechvaya.

Bechvaya puts early marriages down to a lack of information among youth, socio-economic problems, unemployment, deeply entrenched customs and the general nature of society in the South Caucasus. Ignorance of the law also plays an important role.

Pensioners in a mountain village in Kakheti, Georgia’s easternmost province. Photo courtesy of the author.Three years ago, when Tamuna, 15, was kidnapped by her future husband in Kvemo Kartli province, her parents didn’t know how to help her. Her mother and father simply reconciled themselves with the fact of her forced marriage. After regular beatings from her husband, Tamuna returned to her parents’ home last December. The family, ecological migrants from the western province of Adjara, has little money. Tamuna doesn’t work, and her parents can barely make ends meet.

Given that her marriage was never officially registered, Tamuna has not even attempted to claim alimony from her former husband.

Another region suffering from the problem is the Pankisi Gorge in the eastern region of Kakheti. The area is mostly inhabited by Kists, the name given to Chechens who resettled to Georgia between the 16th and 19th centuries, though there are also Georgian and Ossetian villages. In the 1990s, refugees fleeing the first and second Chechen wars also settled here. Pankisi is home to a mostly Muslim population.

Here, underage marriages have been considered a normal practice for centuries, but at the end of March a council of elders decided to no longer permit marriages of minors in Pankisi’s mosques. The head of the council of elders Khaso Khangoshvili explained to Georgian media that he and his colleagues had discussed the issue for a long time. As the practice was already illegal under Georgian law, the council elder said, they also decided to forbid it.

Nevertheless, this decision only applied to mosques following the region’s traditional form of Islam, in which the registration of child marriages was already becoming a rarity. In general, underage marriages in the Pankisi gorge are either conducted following family customs or in mosques following Wahhabi Islam.

Tying the knot

Over the past few years, the battle to put an end underage marriage in Georgia has led to legislative changes. The age of consent for marriage has risen to 18 years, a series of amendments have been made to Georgia’s criminal code, and an amendment has been adopted to protect minors.

From January 2016, new amendments came into force which now forbid marriages involving minors without the consent of the judiciary. The court’s consent for a marriage can only be given to those over 17 years of age, whereas before the amendments this was possible for 16 year olds. A permit for such a marriage can only be issues on good grounds, too — such as pregnancy or the birth of a child.

Although such laws probably influenced the situation, they didn’t get to the core of it — as a rule, these marriages are never seen by the registrar. The majority of underage marriages in Georgia are forced; an agreement is reached between the parents or the ritual of bride kidnapping is carried out. The opinion of the girls themselves interests nobody.

Since April 2015, in accordance with Georgia’s amended criminal code, forced marriage is a criminal offence, and carries a sentence of two to four years’ imprisonment. After the adoption of these amendments, men began to be periodically punished across the country for underage marriages. Often, the marriages were only discovered in the maternity wards after the birth of the second or even third child to a young wife (who by this time is over 18).

Relatives, neighbours, teachers and even the police often believe that an underage marriage is a “family matter”, and don’t want to get involved. After the tightening of the law, Georgian media reported on a number of families who were affected and the punishments they incurred. Media also pointed to the many flaws in this retroactive legislation, and noted that underage marriages are still not met with widespread condemnation in Georgian society.

This is confirmed by research recently carried out by the department of Georgia’s public defender. It showed that not only does society not acknowledge the problem, but people do not even know that marriages must be registered. Furthermore, the system of dividing property upon the dissolution of an informal marriage simply does not work. The law punishing those involved in underage marriages is also ineffective, since it operates retroactively and even then only on registration of the marriage or the birth of children.

Young Azeri men on the streets of Marneuli, Kvemo Kartli region, southern Georgia. Photo courtesy of the author.Moreover, while these strategies and laws are only preventative measures, finding out about them is not always easy. There is still not enough information about or access to contraceptives, work on underage marriages is not being carried out among families, schools draw no attention to the issue, and the police are not trained how to deal with it. In addition, the system for getting in touch with social workers is too difficult to use, and in any case, there aren’t enough of them in the regions.

“We believe that information campaigns should also be held alongside legislative changes, so as to improve public awareness,” says Ekaterina Skhiladze, director of the public defender’s department for gender equality. “Other methods are also needed to support the implementation of the law in practice,” she continues.

Registration of marriages also has a particular impact on women’s property rights, and the public ombudsman of Georgia believes that the country’s legislation should be reviewed and improved with this in mind.

“It could be said that society is not ready to see these changes through, but we mustn’t forget about the scale and urgency of the problem of underage marriage,” Skhiladze tells me. “Legislative amendments should of course take public opinion into account, but we must also highlight the principles of the UN’s Convention on Rights of the Child and Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, which also applies to the defence of children’s interests. The principles of these international conventions must come before all the usual customs and traditional practices.”

(Un)lawfully wedded

In a traditional society it is important that the bride be a virgin. This is another important factor in underage marriages. Young couples often have no other options to legalise their intimate relations in the eyes of their community.

Salome from Zugdidi married when she was 16 years old. She wanted to be closer with the first boy in her life, and relatives insisted that they “legitimise” their relationship. That is the way things are done in the Samegrelo region, where Salome lived.

Her mother was against her daughter getting married at 16, but older relatives and the words of a local priest convinced the girl to run away with her boyfriend at night and get married.

Returning home the next day, Salome presented her 17-year old husband Eno to her family. Her relatives recognised the union and from then on saw the young couple as a fully-fledged family, even though they had not married in church nor before a registrar. Tradition in the Caucasus also demands that a feast be held in honour of a newly married couple to recognise their union.

Today Salome is 26 — she’s an interesting and successful young woman working at one of Georgia’s leading television channels. Her daughter turned nine not long ago. Salome’s story is a very rare example of a successful and established life after marriage at such a young age. Her family supported her and Eno, taking care of their grandson for several years, allowing them to receive an education.

For many of Salome’s friends who were pregnant alongside her, life has not been so easy. One already has several children, never finished school and cannot yet found a job. Another suffers domestic violence on a daily basis, and a third returned to her parents long ago to bring up her children herself, as it had not worked out with her husband. Happy women in Georgia who became wives and mothers while underage are very few indeed.

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Image Source: Pixabay.com (File image. Not a chide bride from Georgia)

Knowing a problem

Representatives of NGOs which have worked on the problem for several years stress that a proper strategy and concrete mechanisms are necessary to tackle child marriage.

When he was 19, Shamistan — an ethnic Azeri from the town of Marneuli — married his 17 year-old girlfriend Ayshan. The girl had known she would marry him since she was 15; they had gotten to know each other and Shamistan liked her. Ayshan wanted to finish school first. Shamistan sees no problem with the fact that he married an underage girl, as Anshan had agreed, and they had married out of love. He was simply not aware of any laws forbidding marriage until the age of 18.

Unfortunately, ignorance of Georgia’s laws against underage marriage is not uncommon — especially not in the regions. Underage marriage still remains a widespread practice, and many people don’t see it as a problem. If they had known that it is a criminal offence and is punishable by a fine or imprisonment, many would not take the risk.

Many are also ignorant of the consequences for their spouse’s health, both physical and psychological. Men in the South Caucasus are far removed from questions of women’s reproductive health, and are taken completely by surprise at their wives’ frequent illnesses or even deaths.

Young woman with her daughter in Zugdidi, Samegrelo region, western Georgia. Photo courtesy of the author.Underage wives automatically fall into a group of high social risk. Unable to finish even basic education, not even mentioning professional qualifications, she immediately becomes dependent on her husband and his relatives. Teenage mothers are more at risk from dying in childbirth — five times more than women in their 20s. They are also more prone to infection, bleeding or infertility.

Although schoolteachers are obliged to inform the social security agencies on cases of underage marriage, they only find out once the child stops showing up at school.

Khatuna Bechvaya is certain that in order to properly tackle underage marriages, the regions must see better development and a higher level of education. “In our country there is a legal mechanism to punish anybody who marries a child. But the awareness of the population, especially in the regions, is very low,” she says. “There’s a great demand for information campaigns and seminars, for more media interest in the regions and for public service advertisements. Government agencies have to get involved.”

“Furthermore, the existing information on reproductive health and contraception just isn’t enough,” adds Ekaterina Skhiladze.

But let’s return to Tamuna’s story. Had her parents known about the law punishing forced marriages, perhaps they could have helped her after the abduction. They could have appealed to social workers, to women’s crisis centres or government agencies able to help women in their daughter’s situation — if only they had known. As Tamuna herself put it, her parents are “simple people, living our traditional lifestyle”. She was too young and naive to think of her own rights, of the law or of registering her marriage.

First and foremost, registration could have solved many of the problems Tamuna still struggles with today, from alimony for her child to an equal division of property (if she had any).

For now, young mothers like Tamuna must rely on themselves, or their parents.

This report prepared by REGINA JEGOROVA-ASKEROVA for openDemocracy.