On October 6, 2023, 14-year-old Aitaj was killed by her 27-year-old “husband”. The word “husband” is in quotation marks because a 14-year-old child cannot be a “wife” and she cannot have a “husband” – this is a criminal offense. According to the version of the investigation, in the summer of 2023, the abductor illegally deprived the minor of her freedom and brought her to the village of Lambalo, Sagarejo district, where the girl had limited freedom of movement. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the minor managed to sneak away, contacted his mother with a stranger’s mobile phone and informed about the kidnapping, which also became known to the minor’s uncle, although they forced the child to live with the abductor. The police arrested Aitaj’s mother and uncle, as well as Aslanov’s uncle and cousin, along with Asim Aslanov, accused of murder, for forcing marriage and not reporting the crime.
Child marriage is a problem in Georgia to this day, even though it is a criminal offense. Women’s rights defenders point to legislative gaps, and to a greater extent to the existing practice, and demand an immediate response from the state.
An early marriage is defined as an official or unofficial union between two people, at least one of whom has not reached the age of 18. Since a person under the age of 18 is still a child, this implies that they are unable to make an informed decision and their consent to marriage is immature. Considering this, child marriage is considered forced marriage. In addition, there are often cases where marriages involve bargaining or harmful practices. According to the United Nations Population Fund, we should consider early marriage as a violation of human and child rights.
“When many people were asking for my hand in the village, my father decided that it was better for me to marry his friend’s son”, – Tamam Abulova
21-year-old Tamam Abulova tells us that she was 16 years old when her father chose a groom three years older and forced her to marry him. Tamam grew up with her grandparents until the age of 7 and remembers that this period was the happiest in her life. A few years after her parents return to the village, his grandmother died, his parents were planning to marry Tamam, but the teenager wanted to leave home and get away from the situation.
“When my grandmother died, I was not interested in anyone in that house anymore. The only person I lived happily with was my grandmother. I wanted to get out of this house, but I didn’t know anything about crisis centers and shelters. The man whose son I was supposed to marry was a close friend of my father. That boy was 19 years old. When many people were asking for my hand in the village, my father decided that it was better for me to marry his friend’s son. If I had not resisted, of course he would have done it,” says Tamam.
The teenager called 112 and reported to the police that they wanted to force her into marriage. As a result of the intervention of the state, Tamam was placed in a shelter and many organizations helped her to continue his studies and start working.
Tamam Abulova now works and studies at Black Sea University. She says she is trying to help every girl who is at risk of early marriage. In her opinion, it is necessary to start a discussion on the harm of early marriage and start awareness raising campaigns among the population.
“Whatever happens, girls should not be afraid. It doesn’t matter who is confronting: mother, father, brother or someone else. It is necessary for girls to choose their lives. Just because parents say this is what their children should do, it doesn’t mean that it’s really the right and good decision for girls,” — Tamam Abulova
Anna Gamisonia was also 16 years old when she married a boy of her own age, with the difference that in this case there was no forcing from the family. She remembers that her parents gave him maximum freedom and taught her that she was responsible for any decision she made.
“I had a wonderful childhood. So, I thought that when I got married, everything would remain the same as my environment and situation. Until I was 16, I looked at the world through rose-colored glasses. I was a calm, warm and very balanced, conflict-free child. I was a bit of an introvert and it’s surprising how many friends I had. As honey attracts bees, I attracted people. I lived in a very good environment, I had a good family, friends, society, and I thought that everyone lived the same way as me, that we were all equal. After marriage, I came face to face with reality and saw that this is not the case,” says Anna.
She was 17 years old when she gave birth to a child, and at the age of 22, husband and wife separated.
“We were the same age, but I took responsibility for the family more easily. He had a bit of a hard time. Until the end, I think, he himself did not understand what kind of a step he was taking. “Maybe I didn’t fully understand, I thought that everything would be in such rosy colors ,” recalls Anna.
“My husband categorically refused to let me get an education. I don’t know why, what was the reason for all this. He didn’t like that I enrolled to a psychology faculty, went to the university and had lectures every day”, — Anna Gamisonia
Taking care of a large family was transferred to Anna, so the 16-year-old cleaned the house, prepared dinners and performed all the activities that, traditionally and as a result of the unequal distribution of roles, housewives perform. For a teenager’s body, which was still in the formative period, the first pregnancy was unsuccessful. The second pregnancy was planned and the couple was relatively ready for it.
“When I was waiting for a child, I thought that I was the only and unique woman who should give birth in this world. During the entire pregnancy and childbirth, the obstetrician-gynecologist prepared me psychologically, explained everything to me, played a very big role. But the birthing process turned out to be quite difficult,” recalls Anna.
Even after the birth of the child, the roles were disproportionately distributed and Anna had to take care and responsibility almost completely. This period coincided with the 1990s, and as for the rest of the population of Georgia, many additional hardships appeared for her. Added to this was the husband’s indifference, sometimes jealousy, imposing restrictions, etc.
“Hidden aggression, even jealousy, indifference or jealousy combined with indifference. You can no longer understand what attitude a person has towards you. As if you are and as if you are not in his life. After leaving Abkhazia, I lived in Russia, and when I returned from there, my categorical request was that I should learn, move forward, create a better life for my child and myself. When we arrived, my husband categorically refused to let me get an education. I don’t know why, what was the reason for all this. He didn’t like that I enrolled to a psychology faculty, went to the university and had lectures every day. He imposed time control on me, meaning what time I left, what time I came in, which was a little surprising, given his indifferent attitude.
We went through a lot of hard times because of my ex-husband’s indifference. He was always asking for changes — I had to change. Trying to change, we got depressed and we lived together for about six and a half years. Then he started talking about it himself, that the family would not work out for us and he was going to leave. Then I told him, if you go through that door, you will never come back.
She says that after her husband left home, it was like she woke up, both psychologically and physically. She was 22 years old and her life started anew.
“From the beginning I learned how to communicate with people, how to dress, how to behave in society. To tell the truth, his departure was a kind of big push for me to move forward, study, get an education, take care of my child, etc. I have come a long way to be who I am today.”
Natalia Avaliani/Aprili Media
Anna’s main supporters were family members and friends. It was them who helped me start a new life not only financially, but also emotionally.
“Early marriage gives you nothing more than extra responsibilities and, so to speak, a strong emotional background. On the contrary, I had to give up a lot of things. Marriage at this age should be avoided, teenage girls should not fall into this situation and should not have to give up on their desires, aspirations, goals, dreams.
Girls, never say no to your desires! Never follow other people’s wishes! Never stay in a toxic relationship with an abusive person! As soon as you realize that you have frames, limitations, turn around and get out, because your life belongs to you. Us, women are very strong, we can do many things. I don’t want you to misunderstand, but we can do more than men and I am convinced of this every day. ”
According to the 2022 data of the National Statistical Service of Georgia, the number of married women aged 16-19 is 1,571, and the number of married men in the same age category includes 258 boys.
According to a recent study by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which provides data for 2018, the proportion of women aged 20 to 24 who were married or in an unregistered union before the age of 18 was 13.9%, and 0.3% who were under the age of 15. It should be noted that, compared to girls, these data are significantly lower in boys and in both cases, the specific share of marriage or entering into an unregistered union before the age of 18 and 15 is 0.5%. If we rely on these statistics, the percentage of underage marriages in Georgia is almost unchanged over the years.
Speaking about child marriage statistics, it should be noted that a large number of cases are not registered, therefore, the statistics cannot be accurate.
What Can the Causes of Early Marriage Be?
Natia Gvritishvili, deputy executive director of the Sapari organization, names a number of reasons for early marriage due to the complexity of the issue. Among them, poverty and hopelessness, especially for children living in the regions.
“When a family is poor, the girl herself may choose to move into her husband’s family, or perhaps the girl’s family prefers to ‘marry off’ a child they cannot provide for.” In addition, there are no recreational activities for young people in the regions. If they do not continue their studies at the university and do not move to Tbilisi or a big city, marriage can serve as a kind of entertainment, a party for them.”
“I have come a long way to be who I am today,” — Anna Gamisonia
Natia Gvritishvili also notes that one of the reasons is the inactivity of state structures. She talks about the role of the Ministry of Education, the obligation of schools and teachers to provide information about child marriage to the relevant agencies, which, according to the current practice, is often a problem.
In addition, Gvritishvili talks about the shortcomings in the law enforcement system, including non-operational response, as well as the fact that there are cases when problems with the law arising as a result of early marriage are “solved” with a plea agreement or a fine.
“Sometimes the police know that there are cases of marriage or engagement, but they are relatives or acquaintances of the family and turn a blind eye to the crime, sometimes they themselves think that early marriage is not a crime. This is quite a big challenge for us, however, at such times we involve the Human Rights Department and we are able to react faster”, she says.
Natia Gvritishvili draws attention to the lack of sexual education and taboo sexual relations.
“They have no information about the harm that pregnancy and childbirth can bring to the child. The most common cause of death for girls aged 15-19 is childbirth and pregnancy. This is coming from the International Health Organization. In addition, sexual relations are also taboo, and sexual relations without the status of a wife or fiancée are not considered allowed.”
Obstetrician-gynecologist Anuka Chonishvili considers the lack of information among teenagers to be one of the causes of early marriage. She says that in school, where the reproductive system, reproductive health, and contraception should be taught fundamentally, this does not happen, and the main source of information for young people is the internet and social networks, where incorrect information is often spread, and reliable information in the Georgian language is rare.
“I think the most important aspect is education. If we solve the problem of allowing teenagers to talk more openly and freely about their bodies, menstruation, contraception, etc., we will get a more educated generation. It is important to cover these topics during the consultation with a doctor during adolescence, and for girls to get information from reliable sources,” Chonishvili says.
According to Maya Kurtsikidze, head of the communication program of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), marriage at an early age is also related to the prevailing gender and social norms in society. According to her, the opinion that makes girls wives and mothers should be changed.
“The perception of children needs to be changed in our society. They are perceived as the property of the family and parents. According to this perception, parents seem to know best what is best for their children and they decide what their children should read, what they should study, who they should be friends with. When parents and society perceive that the child is an independent person and not the property of the parents, whose opinions may differ from those of the parents, then many vicious and harmful norms will be broken,” says Kurtsikidze.
“Pregnant teens are at greater risk of going through preeclampsia, premature birth, postpartum depression, and more.” The fetus is also in danger”, — Anuka Chonishvili
She mentions the access to education as one of the problematic issues and notes that it is the state’s obligation to ensure that there are schools in which children can receive education for twelve years. In addition, there is a need to provide safe transportation to transport children to nearby villages.
“It is desirable that the schools are physically much closer to the children’s residences and the child does not have to travel a long distance. This is a big problem and we can discuss it in terms of access to education. Children should have the opportunity to learn. This is written in the constitution”, explains Kurtsikidze.
Consequences of Early Marriage
When talking about the consequences and impact, first of all, we should consider early marriage in terms of gender. Child marriage mainly affects girls and to a much lesser extent, but, affects boys as well. Adolescent girls in early marriage are much more vulnerable to various types of violence, including economic, sexual, physical, psychological, etc. After moving to a new family, they often become isolated and lose touch with the close people who existed in their lives before marriage.
Maya Kurtsikidze notes that these traumas, including sexual violence, have a very heavy impact on children. In addition, according to her, when marrying at an early age, children drop out of school, which deprives them of the right to live up to their potential, become financially independent and gain confidence in themselves to make decisions about their own lives. UNICEF’s communications program manager focuses on the problems that come with disconnecting from education and denying girls the opportunity to take control of their lives.
“When they get married at a young age, family members make decisions for them. Be it husband, mother-in-law, father-in-law, mother, father or others. Children often have less opportunity to make their own decisions about, say, whether they want to continue their education or have children. Everyone already expects them to “get married” and have children. They are often victims of violence by family members and are unable to defend themselves or do not know who to turn to. Because of this, they are often forced to endure the violence that happens to them in the family,” says Maya Kurtsikidze.
Quitting education and starting family life as a result of marriage affects both girls and boys, but not equally. Although boys, like girls, in some cases quit studying, it is more common for girls to drop out from school life and engage in home labor. Unpaid domestic work is especially acute in case of underage girls. They are forced to adapt to a new rhythm and routine of life, which is already difficult in itself, although it is aggravated by the work at home, which is not only physical, but also emotional. In addition to keeping the house clean, and cooking, girls bear the burden of caring for the family’s emotional well-being.
In addition, it is particularly important to recognize pregnancy and childbirth as a violation of the reproductive health rights of minor girls. Married girls are prone to complications during pregnancy and childbirth as their bodies are not formed and ready for pregnancy.
Reproductive health is not only about pregnancy, but also about taking safety precautions when starting to have sex and making informed decisions about pregnancy planning. Sex life started as a result of early marriage may be accompanied by psychological aspects related to the readiness and awareness of girls and boys. In the absence of this, a completely wrong view of sex can be formed and sexual intercourse can become only a traumatic experience. Along with planning for pregnancy, it is important to take preventive measures against sexually transmitted diseases and avoid pregnancy if desired. In addition, sexual life started at an early age may become the cause of cancer.
According to the Reproductive Health Survey, 76.6% of married women between the ages of 15 and 19 do not use any modern method of contraception. The main reasons named by them are related to the desire to get pregnant, fertility and sexual activity.
“It is important to make an agreement in the society that violence is bad, marriage at an early age is bad and it harms children’s development”, – Maya Kurtsikidze
Obstetrician-gynecologist, Anuka Chonishvili points to the data of the Health Organization (WHO), according to which, in 2019, 21 million pregnancies among girls aged 15-19 years were recorded in low and medium developed countries, 50% of them were unwanted. Based on these data, WHO states that half of the pregnancies ended in abortion. Most of these abortions were not safe for the girls’ health.
“Pregnancy during adolescence is accompanied by risks, both for the mother’s body and for the fetus. Adolescent pregnant women are at greater risk of going through preeclampsia, premature birth, postpartum depression, and more. The fetus is also at risk – in case of newborns, low weight, congenital anomalies of development and others are common,” says Chonishvili.
What Can We Do to Prevent and Respond?
Maya Kurtsikidze emphasizes, first of all, the supremacy and enforcement of the law, since early marriage is one of the forms of violence that should be punished. According to her, first of all, the state must protect the rights. On the other hand, the representative of UNICEF talks about the responsibility of the society that everyone should raise their voice.
“The law prohibiting early marriage under the age of 18 should be implemented in the state. There are appeal procedures for protection against child abuse in Georgia. This is a state mechanism that obliges all professionals who have any contact with children (teachers, law enforcement officers, doctors, pre-school heads or municipal employees) to notify the relevant services. Very often, unfortunately, this does not happen, because these people are also members of society and come from villages and towns where harmful social norms in the country also apply. The idea that if they report the fact of violence to the appropriate agency, they will be reprimanded or shamed by the environment, gets in the way of professionals whose obligation is to report”.
Marika Bandzeladze, an analyst of the Gender Program of the United Nations Population Fund, notes that legislative changes and tightening of the law are very important and necessary, although this cannot be the only mechanism that will change the results. According to her recommendation, together with the tightening of the law, it is necessary to work more strongly and deeply on the awareness of the population regarding the issue. Bandzeladze also talks about the need to create certain opportunities for children and young people, which will create an alternative solution for them.
“In some cases, it seems that marriage is a child’s choice, but this choice is due to the fact that they have no other way out, no alternative and no other means of development. They actually see the only solution in creating a family and getting married,” Bandzeladze says.
“The state, society, we all must do everything to prevent child marriage”, – Maya Kurtsikidze
Maya Kurtsikidze also draws attention to the role of civil society and talks about the strategies and approaches that would have a positive effect on the process of solving the problem. According to her, the main essence of civil society is to advocate people’s needs and bring their voice to decision makers. It also points to the importance of raising children’s awareness levels. According to the UNICEF representative, this is important so that, if necessary, children can escape from violent situations in which they find themselves.
When it comes to social norms, including gender norms, one or two people cannot independently decide and change the situation. It is important to make an agreement in the society that violence is bad, early marriage is bad and it harms the child’s development. “Coordinated action, coordinated approaches and the existence of a single well-thought-out strategy are important, because, as a rule, scattered and unplanned actions do not change anything,” says Kurtsikidze.
The UNFPA representative also speaks about the need for coordinated work and states that a multisectoral approach to the problem is important. She explains this need by the fact that, according to her, as recent cases of early marriage have shown, state structures have failed to quickly exchange information with each other, identify and respond accordingly.
“Unfortunately, there will be too many similar cases if all structures are not simultaneously, quickly and immediately involved in the management of such cases. Of course, on the one hand, standard operating procedures are needed, which ensures that this connection exists between state structures, and on the other hand, each of them should know what, how and in what way to implement within their competence”, says Marika Bandzeladze.
According to Marika Bandzeladze, UNFPA has analyzed criminal cases and the lack of a multi-sectoral approach was identified as one of the biggest problems.
“There are flaws in the investigation as well. Although in 70% of cases the investigation is started immediately, which is a positive trend indeed, it is problematic how the investigation is conducted, how much the best interest of the child is taken into account in this process. Also, the prosecutor’s office may proceed with the right article, but at the court stage, the qualification of this article changes and it is actually discussed with another article, which makes this issue even worse,” says Bandzeladze.
Natia Gvritishvili believes that informing children is one of the most successful strategies in the process of fighting against early marriage. According to her, the most effective was to empower children and provide them with information.
“After the meetings, all the cases related to child marriage were brought in by the children. I never received a call from an adult.”
According to the Civil Code of Georgia, marriage is allowed from the age of 18. However, marking 18 as the legal age for entering into marriage is not many years old and has its origin in January 2016, when, on the recommendation of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the rule was abolished, according to which people who reached the age of 16 could marry, with the reservation that such marriages required parental consent. or consent of guardian.
The practice of early marriage, which is widespread not only in Georgia, is worrying for international organizations. International conventions use various instruments to protect children’s rights when it comes to preventing early marriage. In particular, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and the Beijing Platform for Action (1995), which is attached to the Fourth International Conference on Women of the United Nations. These documents focus on early marriage, violence against women, consent to marriage and the minimum age of marriage.
November 25 is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The date was established in 1981 and is associated with activist women, the Mirabal sisters. This day is also chosen in their honor, because these women sacrificed themselves in the fight against the regime. On the day of fighting against violence against women, together with international organizations, local people also join. The campaign against gender-based violence focuses on a specific topic every year. The theme of November 25 this year is the fight against child marriage.
The demonstration of the Women’s Movement and the organization Sapari will be held on November 25 of this year in front of the parliament, the main demand of which is the prohibition of child engagement and marriage.
According to Nina Agladze, communications manager of Sapari, there will be a performance at the parliament, which will draw attention to the importance of the state’s involvement in the fight against the problem of child marriage and engagement. Also, experts and activists will talk about this problem and ways to solve it.
“Marriage of children under 18 is prohibited by law in Georgia, however, this is not enough to solve the problem. Child marriage takes place in roundabout ways, and one such way is child engagement, where, for example, a girl gets engaged to a man and moves in with him. Our demand is that similar engagements are also prohibited by law and considered as child abuse, so that relevant agencies can react strictly to this. Child marriage cost the life of Aitaj Shakhmarova, and it is our duty to change this bitter reality for children, because children cannot defend themselves,” explains Nina.