Early Marriages Worry Azerbaijan Officials

Unscrupulous mullahs accused of marrying young girls whose health and education then suffer.

Officials in Azerbaijan are so concerned by the number of women getting married under-age that parliament is discussing raising the minimum age for marriage to 18.

Women’s rights activists say corrupt religious officials are prepared to conduct Islamic ceremonies for couples when the woman is too young for a state service, leaving her unprotected if her husband leaves her, uneducated and vulnerable to medical complications.

But girls themselves, like 15-year-old Sabina Agavaliyeva, who is preparing to marry a man seven years her senior, say they are happy to take the risks and leave school early.

“My fiancé does not want me to study. He says there is no point. And I think that if my husband will work and support the family, then his wife should look after her children and husband,” she told IWPR, when asked if she regretted leaving school.

Her parents do not object to the match, saying it is hard to find a good husband.

But parliamentary deputies say such marriages are dangerous and that the girl is risking her health by marrying so young. If legal amendments suggested by Hadi Rajabli, chairman of the commission for social policy, are adopted then the minimum age for marriage will be raised to 18 from 17.

“I think the age limit must be raised, and not just for straight physiological reasons. A mature mother is the basis of a family. If a mother herself is a child, then she cannot raise her children as she should. We are talking about the mother’s education, about how a mature woman must conduct family matters. A marriage with such a woman will be stronger than if she is a young, inexperienced girl,” he said.

Experts agree that young marriages are dangerous for girls. Ruhangiz Huseynova, chairwoman of the organisation Female Solidarity, said a girl’s body is not yet ready to have babies or an active sex life.

“For example in the Masally region of southern Azerbaijan, of 30 girls who became pregnant aged 15 or 16, only one gave birth without problems. The others had to have medical intervention. There are cases when a girl, not used to a sex life, returns to her parental home with a reputation for inadequacy,” she said.

She said the girls also suffer from an incomplete education. In Khachmaz, a city near Azerbaijan’s border with Russia, of 2,500 pupils in their final year of school, almost 130 girls were not attending since they had already married. The headmaster, she said, took no action, although education is compulsory.

But her organisation’s research shows that the problem of young marriages is most pronounced in the southern regions bordering Iran.

“In these regions people are poor and, by marrying off a daughter, they think they can solve the problem of having to support her. Corruption among spiritual leaders plays a big role, since they are ready to hold a religious marriage without state registration. According to our investigations, a religious marriage costs around 500 manats (625 US dollars),” she said.

She also pointed out that a woman entering into a religious marriage without state registration loses the right to state support for her future children.

Other experts said early marriages are a risk not only to the health of the mother, but also to that of the child. According to Hijran Huseynova, chairwoman of the State Committee for the Problems of the Family, 90 per cent of children born to young mothers have health complications.

Haji Surkhay Mamadli, a religious leader and imam of the Juma mosque, said that a religious conference had decided in 2007 to exclude anyone from the organisation who conducted a religious marriage for an under-age woman.

“Islamic law does not give a precise date when a girl can get married. Kitab al-Nikah (the book of marriage) gives marriageable age as when a girl reaches sexual maturity. This age can vary from nine to 14. But anyway, Azerbaijan is a secular state, where religion is separate from the state. And we religious figures must act within the laws of the Republic of Azerbaijan. The law states that below 17 a marriage is not legal and I support this,” he said.

Mullahs are not allowed to perform a religious ceremony if the couple cannot prove they are fit to be legally married.

“If couples come to us, we ask them if they have a marriage certificate from the state organs. If they do not then we do not register their union,” Haji Surkhay said.

But Nabil Seidov, chairman of an alliance of non-governmental organisations concerned with children’s rights, said that not all religious figures were as scrupulous as they should be when it came to enforcing the law.

“They are ready to break the law and conduct a religious marriage without the necessary documents. An illegal marriage costs 500 manats,” he said, pointing to the statistics showing how many girls missed the last year of school.

“It is clear that their marriage has been formalised by a religious ceremony alone.”

Huseynova of Feminine Solidarity said a change in the law would help solve the situation, but would not be enough without publicising the dangers of early marriages.

“We are not opposed to religious marriages; we are opposed to under-age marriage. We support educating girls about the consequences,” she said.

Diana Isayeva is a correspondent of Novosti-Azerbaijan.


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