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Close-Kin Marriages Still Widespread in Uzbekistan
Although medical experts warn against cosanguinous marriage, which is banned by law, many people in Uzbekistan believe it makes for more lasting unions and helps preserve the family lineage
The Tashkent regional department of justice recently held a seminar to publicise the dangers of marriage between close kin. Organisers warned of the increased danger of passing on hereditary diseases and harming the nation’s health.
However, NBCentral Asia observers say the public awareness campaign is not proving effective as offficals turn a blind eye to something which they regard as a private family affair.
Marriages of this kind, typically between first cousins, are generally advocated by people of the older generation, in rural areas where the clan structure is retained. A typical cosanguinous marriage will involve members of the same clan and tribe.
A code of family law introduced in 1998 forbids marriages between “siblings, first and second cousins, and uncles or aunts with nieces or nephews”.
In practice, the law is ignored.
“I know many families where the spouses are first cousins – it’s quite common here,” said an observer from the eastern city of Andijan.
One of the reasons why the tradition continues into the modern age, say experts, is economic.
High levels of poverty create an incentive to avoid the massive expenditure that regarded as obligatory for weddings. As in other Central Asian countries, marriage in Uzbekistan requires hospitality for large numbers of people, gifts and the payment of a substantial “bride price” by the groom’s family.
With a marriage within the extended family, these costs, such as the bride price, can be greatly reduced by common agreement.
“Parents want to protect the newlyweds from the financial problems facing many Uzbek families,” said Rano, a consultant on family relationships in Tashkent. “It’s always easier for family members, especially brothers and sisters [whose children are marrying], to come to an arrangement.”
It is common for related families to “exchange” sons and daughters, and then hold both weddings together in order to save costs.
Another factor is reluctance to marry out of the extended family or clan. Families are reluctant to conclude ties with outsiders.
“Uzbeks have a saying, which is often heard at weddings: ‘We have given our daughter away not to strangers, but to our own.’ This is the psychological reasoning,” said an expert on Uzbekistan. “It is considered appropriate when a mother marries off her daughter to her brother”.
Komila, 19, from Margilan in the Fergana valley, married Abdusalom, her uncle by blood, two years ago, and says she is content with the arrangement.
“I’ve known him since childhood and know all his good and bad traits,” she said. “I don’t care that he’s 13 years older than me. On the contrary, that’s very good, since such an inexperienced woman like me needs a mature and experienced man.”
Both of Komila’s sons are in perfect health. Others, however, are not so lucky, and genetic disorders are common.
A doctor at a mother-and-child clinic in Tashkent says many children born of cosanguinous marriages suffer from cystic fibrosis.
“We have families where the first, second and third child are all sick,” added the doctor.
Munira, a therapist from the western city of Samarkand, says when two parents pass on the same gene, hereditary diseases can become more likely.
“If the genes match, the child can have various diseases or deformities”, says the doctor.
No data is available on how many of the 250,000 weddings each year are cosanguinous.
In 2000, President Islam Karimov proposed a system where the civil registration authorities would track applications for cosanguinous marriage, but his recommendation has not been acted on.
“The authorities turn a blind eye to the problem, as they themselves are part of a society that looks favourably on marriages between close relatives,” said an observer in Uzbekistan.
(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)
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