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Child Marriage Persists in Parts of Georgia

Total illegal, the custom has not been tackled aggressively by authorities who seem to fear treading on people’s toes.
By Manana Vardiashvili
  • Anna Arganashvili, head of the gender equality department at the Georgian ombudsman’s office. (Photo courtesy of A. Arganashvili)
    Anna Arganashvili, head of the gender equality department at the Georgian ombudsman’s office. (Photo courtesy of A. Arganashvili)

Galiba, 14, left school early to get married. Now six months pregnant, she spends her days doing the housework at her in-laws’ home in southeastern Georgia.

Early marriages are common in Galiba’s village, located in the Marneuli district, a part of Georgia with a large population of Azerbaijani Muslims.

“I’m getting old and I need a helper. There’s a lot of work around the house. Galiba will have her baby and start helping me,” Sima, her 35-year mother-in-law, said. “She won’t continue her studies, as it’s shameful for a married woman to go to school. What lad would agree to his wife going to school?”

Like many others in the area, Galiba’s sister also married at 14 without finishing high school.

In Georgia, early marriages occur mainly among Azerbaijanis in the Kvemo Kartli region, of which Marneuli is part, and also in Ajara, where the population is ethnic Georgian but many are Muslims unlike the country’s Orthodox Christian majority.

The age of consent in Georgia is 16, and even then, written permission from a parent or guardian is needed to get married before the age of 18. Sex with a minor is a criminal offence.

The constitution also states that secondary-school education is compulsory.

Nevertheless, the World Health Organisation. WHO, says that Georgia, with neighbouring Turkey, has a very high level of early marriage compared with other regional states.

Georgia’s human rights ombudsman reports that 341 girls dropped out of school to get married in Marneuli district in the 2011-12 academic year, and two of them had not even turned 12.

There are no equivalent figures for the whole of Georgia, since the education ministry does not record the reasons why pupils drop. But ministry statistics show that nearly 7,400 girls aged 13 to 15 stopped attending school across the country in the 2011-12 year.

Campaigners say the authorities seem unable or unwilling to tackle what is undeniably a sensitive matter.

"The problem of early marriage is serious in Georgia, particularly in traditional communities, and there’s a conflict here between tradition and the law,” Aleko Tskitishvili, director of Georgia’s Human Rights Centre, said. “The problem is that the defenders of tradition vehemently oppose any interference in their ways.”

Tskitishvili believes the authorities need to tackle the problem from different angles.

“First, there has to be educational work on the ground to explain why the tradition has to be abandoned. Second, the law has to be enforced,” he said. “And there are other difficulties, too. Since these marriages aren’t registered with the state, they don’t officially count, so there are problems about who is accountable for them.”

The situation is complicated by the state’s apparent reluctance to confront local communities head-on.

“The last government [ousted October 2012] just wasn’t interested,” Nato Shavlakhadze, head of the Anti-Violence Network of Georgia, said. “It didn’t investigate it, it kept no official statistics on it, and hence it did nothing about it.

“As for the new government [of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili], the problem is on such a scale that it just doesn’t have enough social workers to make effective inroads in these regions.”

The WHO and other organisations have called on Georgia’s government to formally declare early marriage a human rights violation.

Anna Arganashvili, who heads the gender equality department at the ombudsman’s office said that while there was nothing wrong with Georgian legislation as it stood, “there are many failings when it comes to enforcing the law”.

“The gravity of the problem isn’t acknowledged, and so the state doesn’t pay serious attention to it. This issue hasn’t yet provoked a public debate,” she said.

Arganishvili said it was accepted around the world that marriage between the ages of 12 and 15 was a form of violence against children.

“Early marriage has a bad effect on a child’s physical and mental health, and removes opportunities to gain an education and hence to find work,” she continued. “The statistics show that children who marry early are more likely to be victims of domestic violence, since they’re unable to defend their rights.”

Elene Samushia, a psychologist with the Anti-Violence Network, agreed, saying, “Young girls in new marriages often fall victim to mental, physical and sexual abuse. Apart from that, these young families often split up. Because most of these girls don’t finish school and don’t acquire professions, they can’t support themselves or their children.”

A spokesman for the education ministry told IWPR that it was not allowed to take a child out of school for the purpose of marriage, and a school head would be punished for allowing that to happen. But he added that if a family took a child out of school, there was nothing the ministry could do about it.

Arganashvili said this was not the case.

“One of the ombudsman’s main recommendations is that children have to receive their mandatory education. If parents refuse to provide a child with this mandatory education, or are unable to do so, then the state has to take over the protection of that child,” she said. “All state institutions must get involved in acting against early marriage, including the education, health and interior ministries.”

The kind of renewed effort Arganashvili is calling for is likely to face resistance from local communities attached to their traditions.

Galiba’s mother-in-law Sima said that even in cases where family members of prospective husbands abducted young girls, the girls’ own relatives would nevertheless be unlikely to bring in the police.

“The girl only rarely gets returned home anyway, so the family will come to some agreement. The police don’t intervene much, since they know they’ll be told they are interfering in our traditions,” she said.

Manana Vardiashvili works for the Liberali magazine.

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