Editor’s note: Names have been changed for purposes of anonymity.
Tradition and Custom: Powerful For the Community, Difficult for the Individual
Azerbaijanis make for more than 6% (233,024) of Georgia’s population, and are the country’s largest ethnic minority. Many of them are concentrated in the southeast of the country, along the Armenian and Azerbaijani borders. These communities have remained together much in part through the maintenance of local traditions and customs. But in the Georgian region of Kvemo Kartli, these same traditions and customs have also been the cause of several suicides and other unfortunate events in the town’s recent history.
Karajala, a predominantly ethnic Azerbaijani town of 9,000 people has been host to several of these tragic incidents in the past three years.
Karajala resident Gunay Abdullayeva lost her 15-year-old daughter, Aysel, to suicide in 2013, after her family tried coercing her into a marriage she did not want.
Her mother, Gunay, agreed to tell her story.
“My life changed in the blink of an eye. My daughter and son were watching a movie on TV. I checked in on them and then
left to pack some pickles. Suddenly I heard my son screaming. I ran to her bedroom and saw her lifeless body and the gun on the floor.”
She had tried to convince her daughter that a marriage would make her happy.
“There was a family who wanted their son to marry my daughter. I suggested the idea to her. They are a good family, and I wanted my daughter to be happy. But…I didn’t know know that she was in love with another boy.”
Aysel’s mother said that the boy in question sent letters and flowers to her daughter every day, but Aysel’s family was uncomfortable with such open displays of affection. Gunay said that in the village, such actions are considered inappropriate and shameful.
“My daughter was a shy and pure girl, she didn’t meet with him. But I didn’t know that she was also secretly in love with him. After she died, I read her diary and I understood that she had feelings for him as well. . .
We forced her to get married. Tradition drove her to her death.”
Aysel’s admirer couldn’t cope with her death, and tried committing suicide as well by swallowing a vast amount of pills from his family’s medicine cabinet, but his family luckily intervened.
Gunay pointed to her daughter’s pictures on the wall, and continued.
“Do you see that? We brought our children up well. We didn’t skimp on food or clothes. But it seems that that’s not what they needed — they needed our spiritual and emotional support. I would advise other mothers to communicate more often with their children and to protect them from the pressure of traditions and customs — that is the most important.”
Underage marriage is
by no means a rare occurrence in Georgia,
especially in Azerbaijani communities. The United Nations defines underage marriage as a marriage between two partners, one of whom is under the age of 18.
In Kvemo Kartli, 32% of women questioned were married between the age of 18. 1 of 20 women were married before the age of 14, and 16% were married before the age of 16,
states a special UN Women report on the Kvemo Kartli region
One day after Aysel’s death on March 19, 2014, the Ombudsman of Georgia, Ucha Nanushvili,
called for a ban against early marriages in the country.
”The situation is alarming, and all of society should realize the grievousness of this issue and should feel responsible for the early marriages of dozens of young girls and the violence used against them.”
Another girl, Nilgun Bayramova, committed suicide a year earlier in 2013 for similar reasons.
Who Is to Blame?
The principal of Aysel’s school, Reyhan Javidova, said that both children had received good grades and were well – behaved.
“They were well-educated. They had good relationships with their friends and their teachers. We spoke with the school psychologists, but they said that the girls had shown no signs of erratic or strange behavior.”
Based on her own observations, Javidova believes that the number of underage marriages has decreased amongst students in recent years, but the practice continues and cannot be stopped entirely, she commented.
“Children don’t struggle against their parents very often, because they don’t understand the meaning of marriage. Most of them accept it as a sort of game. But some of them don’t, like Aysel and Nilgun. And in both cases, the parents are responsible for what happened.”
The principal added that though they do conduct sessions at the school about forced, early and arranged marriages, the law alone cannot stop parents from marrying off their underage children, because parents are not afraid of the law.
Emin Muradov, the principal of a secondary school in the village of Mankhuti in the central region of Bolnisi, says that girls often leave school before they even finish the 9th grade. He also attributes low student attendance to early marriages:
“In just one year, the number of pupils was reduced from 127 to 114 because of early marriage. As a result, we are occasionally forced to shut down their classes because of a lack of students, which also affects the teachers because it leads to a reduction in teaching hours.
Last year, four girls left our school in the 12th grade, and a number of boys also stopped coming because of their family and marriage obligations. We were forced to close that class as well.”
According to Georgian legislation, if a pupil leaves the school for reasons related to their marriage, the school principal is obliged to call Social Services or the police. Article 172 of the Georgian Code of Administrative Offenses states that parents guilty of “non-fulfillment of the obligation of upbringing and educating children” should receive a warning or be required to pay an administrative fine of 2,000 or more Georgian lari ($867).
However, in practice, these penalties are rarely enforced
Muradov said that he has considered involving the authorities on numerous occasions, but later thought to himself that, “We are residents of the same village, there is nothing I can do…What right do I have to interfere?”
Even in cases of breaking the law, ethnic Azerbaijani as well as Georgian locals consider it inappropriate to interfere in what is considered a family matter. When a school representative does so, parents often complain, and state that they will do as they please. For this reason, principals often do not inform the police or social services about underage marriages.
A Lack of Public Oversight Can Be Dangerous
Salome Gegova, a psychologist at the Georgian Center for Psychological and Analytical Rehabilitation of Torture Victims, says parents in such communities pay too much attention to the financial welfare of their children, but not to their emotional and psychological health.
“Some parents don’t see the suicide coming because teens are very good at hiding what’s going on in their lives. Parents are often the last to know of their children’s troubled personal lives.”
This is in part due to the fact that adolescents are well adapted to hiding their feelings. But there are warning signs.
The psychologist advises parents not to ignore these signs.
“Any change in behavior is something to take seriously. If a generally outgoing adolescent suddenly begins to isolate themselves, or if they are start voicing despairing thoughts about life, this is a sign that they feel trapped. These signs don’t necessarily point to suicide – but they can be red flags.
To compound the complexity of the problem, many of those who are forced into unwanted marriages are financially dependent on their families, and have no choice but to submit to the demands of their parents.
One such example is 16-year-old Melahet Ibrahimova.
Melahat lives in the village of Kirikhlo, which is also located within Kvemo Kartli.
Melahat’s family withdrew her from school in the 3rd grade because of their financial situation, and she began helping out her mother around the home, despite wanting to continue her education.
Later, when she was 16, her parents decided that she was to be married in one of the most unpleasant ways.
A family friend, Gulnar Sadiqova, the mother of a 22-year-old boy named Rza, decided she wanted her son to marry Melahet.
Melahet’s family agreed, although the groom and bride-to-be vehemently opposed the idea: Rza already had a girlfriend, and Melahet was not interested in marrying; especially someone she had never met.
Melahet protested, but no one listened to her.
“Nobody asked me what I thought. Here was the decision of my life, and no one asked me. I cried for two days when I found out. My mother told that it was going to happen one day, and that I wouldn’t understand what was happening at the time. I felt so afraid, so helpless.”
Melahet’s and Rza’s parents agreed to have their children wed.
Shortly after a small engagement ceremony, Melahet’s grandfather passed away. According to Islamic tradition, the family should have waited for the 40-day mourning period to pass before the marriage ceremony.
But Rza’s family decided not to wait: they kidnapped Melahet.
Melahet says that her parents agreed to the kidnapping for financial reasons. “Rza didn’t want to kidnap me, but his family forced him. Local tradition states that if a girl is kidnapped, her parents don’t have to pay a dowry for their daughter. My family is poor, and that’s why they agreed. . . They agreed to a foul tradition to do away with expenses associated with a traditional wedding.”
Needless to say, things are not easy for Melahet now. She claims her husband beats her incessantly even though she is pregnant, and her family does not listen to her problems. Her father’s responses have been especially harsh.
He once told her, “We love you, Melahet, but you know our traditions: if a girl leaves a home in a wedding dress, she should only come back in a coffin.”
To this, Melahet responded that she never left the house in a wedding dress, and that there was no official marriage document signed at the time. Her father didn’t answer this point.
Her mother’s support has only consisted of advising her to be patient, and to submit to her fate.
Melahet is now four months pregnant, and bitterly regrets what has happened to her. “I would have liked to study, to spend time with my peers and to be a strong woman. But now, I can’t even go outside. I’m at home the whole day. I am a girl, but I don’t even remember my childhood.”
Melahet is afraid of turning to the police for help. “Everyone says that you should never complain about the way your husband treats you. I don’t have the courage to call the police. I don’t know how to behave, how to protect myself. I don’t like our traditions or the mentality here at all. They make me unhappy, and they don’t give women a second chance or the opportunity to protect themselves. All there is for us to do is live with our fate until the very end.”
The Georgian authorities have tried to tackle the issue of underage marriage by introducing Article 150 to the Criminal Code of Georgia — coercion of marriage is now illegal in the country as of 2014.
Other measures, such as mandating that schools report the reason for pupils’ dropouts, have been mildly effective in generating data, but have not been strictly enforced.
The adherence to traditions of arranged and early marriages is a severe violation of children’s rights. But in certain communities, under the pretext of respect for tradition and custom, these marriages continue, and will live on until all players involved – parents, teachers, principals, NGOs and government authorities – take cohesive action on the issue.