Child marriage: broken dreams of Azerbaijani girls
© UNICEF Azerbaijan/Pirozzi/2004
By Ali Verdiyev
A Recent study found that child marriages occur mainly due to cultural and socio-economic factors.
“I have always wanted to be a doctor,” says Zeynab timidly interviewed in her house in the south of Azerbaijan, “it was my childhood dream…”
But, for Zeynab, as well as for some other girls in this South Caucasus nation, dreams are not so easy to come true, as they are forced to get marry young, thus deprived of their right to receive further education.
Zeynab now lives with her parents in a village of Lenkaran, a place with strict religious views, bordering Iran. When she was 15 she married a man in his 30s, mainly due to economic hardship, as she explains. Zeynab spent two years with her husband, who eventually abandoned her, leaving for Russia. She has lived with her husband’s parents for a while until they asked her out.
Child marriages are commonplace in this oil-rich country with a unique blend of modernity and traditions, both in rural and urban areas. Some parents still prefer having their daughters get married early, rather than continuing education, something a boy would need.
“I stopped going to school after getting married. My husband and his parents beat me almost every day,” recalls Zeynab. “I had a stillbirth a year after my marriage. I did not know why it happened to me and what I was supposed to do. Both my parents and the parents of my husband blamed me for this,” said Zeynab.
“It was difficult for us to maintain a family of eight,” Zeynab’s mother tells. “We thought we could lessen the burden at home by marrying our daughter and she would be happy”.
Child marriages are believed to be paving the way for human rights abuses leading to poverty and discrimination against women. According to a study conducted by the Azerbaijan State Committee on Family, Woman and Child Problems, the International Centre for Social Studies and UNICEF among 488 respondents from four regions of the country, about 58% of identified child marriages take place without girls’ full consent. Girls under the age of 16 get married without any legal guarantee because their marriage is not officially, but religiously registered. Nor do they have the right skills and knowledge, as well as physical ability, to create a healthy family.
Education is important both for mothers' and for children's health as evidence-based research shows. The more educated the mother is, the less likely it is for her child to die. Education also helps avoid child marriages among girls, which have health risks associated with adolescent pregnancy and birth. According to the 2006 Demography and Health Survey, the probability of an infant dying before his first birthday is about 1.8 times higher for mothers below 20 than mothers aged 20-29.
The study found that such marriages occur mainly due to cultural and socio-economic factors persistent in different regions. Parents make unilateral decisions to marry their girl children in 77% of researched cases and this event is unfortunately welcomed by 55% of the interviewed people.
Practice shows that divorced young girls are most vulnerable to human trafficking. In the ‘best case’ scenario, they end up with psychological shock and sufferings throughout the rest of their lives, which puts an unrecoverable cost on the welfare of the entire population.
Thus, through child marriages the rights of adolescent girls to general education are violated because they are compelled to cease attending classes after marriage. To make it worse, they are also deprived of the right to make decisions concerning their lives. According to the DHS, only 20% of married women make decisions on their own health, while 52% decide jointly with their husbands and for 28% somebody else decides.
Although the statutory age of marriage in the Azerbaijani law is 17 for girls, it allows for reducing this age to 16 in special circumstances. Another concern is the draft education law, which lowers the minimum period of compulsory schooling from eleven to nine years, making it easier for parents to marry their girls once they are 15.
Child marriages are a destructive social phenomenon, but can be effectively uprooted from Azerbaijani society provided that a comprehensive set of countermeasures ranging from legislative amendments to women empowerment is applied. So, the challenges ahead are amending the laws, mobilizing government institutions and raising public awareness about the negative consequences of child marriages – the areas UNICEF Azerbaijan is strongly advocating for.