Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uzbekistan: Upsurge in Teenage Brides

Tradition and poverty forcing many young girls into early marriage.
By Muazzam Ibragimova

Schoolgirls weighed down by home and family responsibilities are becoming a common sight in Uzbekistan, which is seeing an upsurge in teenage marriage. "It took me about 18 months to get used to my new life. I have accepted my lot, but it was hard to adjust to no longer being a girl," said Muborak Mukhitdinova, married at 15 and already a mother.


Muborak lives in Andijan, a city in eastern Uzbekistan which has seen 27 marriages of underage girls in the past two months. Uzbek law only permits it from the age of 17, but many children are being wed in mosques, where imams observe the Islamic law of Sharia, which does not specify any particular age for marriage.


Moreover, the state shows little inclination to intervene. "It is hard to establish any statistics on 15- and 16-year-old brides, as the wedding ritual is performed by the clergy. The first we see of these couples is when they come to register their babies," said Dilzoda Mutalova, director of the Andijan city registry.


During the Soviet era, the usual marriageable age for Uzbek girls was around 20. Families prized brides with a good education and professional status. Today, youth and inexperience are valued above all, as younger women adapt more easily to their newly restricted roles.


Commentators link early marriage directly to the rise in national self-consciousness which accompanied Uzbek independence in the early 1990s. Nationalists who claimed that communism had suppressed Uzbek traditions and rites began to adopt Islamic practices and rules. Key to this movement was an active campaign to return women to their "original" place in Uzbek society, as keepers of hearth and home.


The declining living standards of independent Uzbekistan have also contributed to the trend, according to Mavlyuda Isomova of the Sabr (Patience) centre. "Social problems such as poverty, unemployment, and low income drive parents to try and marry off their daughters earlier. The longer a girl stays home, the more expenses her parents must shoulder. Today the matchmakers are even looking for 14-year olds," she said.


After marriage, a girl's food, medical treatment and upkeep become her husband's responsibility.


Moreover, now that education is no longer universally free in Uzbekistan, the chances for women to become economically independent through gaining a profession are reduced. Competition for free university places is severe and only the children of the well off can afford to pay tuition fees, which range from 200 to 500 US dollars per year, in a country where the monthly salary is 18.4 dollars.


Early marriages conducted under the rules of Sharia leave women more vulnerable to divorce. Islamic law states that a man need only repeat the word talak (divorce) three times in front of witnesses in order to leave his wife. With no official register of her marriage, the divorced wife finds herself unable to claim any property rights or social benefits.


Out of 2050 marriages recorded in Andijan last year, 130 have already broken up. Mavlyuda Isomova of the Sabr centre believes that the immaturity of many brides is a significant factor. "At the age of 15 or 16 a girl is not ready for sexual life and maternity. She may look mature, but her psyche and personality are not yet fully formed. For those reasons, family life can be extremely stressful for her," she said.


Widespread unemployment is increasing the pressures of married life. Unable to find work, many husbands cannot provide for their families and take out their frustrations on their wives. After one year of marriage, 17-year-old Sanobar Jumaeva was divorced by her unemployed husband, who would beat her regularly. She has had no success in claiming any rights over their property.


While Uzbek women remain equal to men under the terms of the constitution, the strides made during the Soviet era are gradually being rolled back. Today, attitudes to women in Uzbekistan are moving closer to an old proverb which is becoming newly popular, "A woman has long hair but a short mind".


Muazzam Ibragimova is an independent journalist in Andijan.


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