The law is failing to protect child brides forced into early marriage in southern Azerbaijan.
CRS No. 261, 10-Nov-04, Institute For War & Peace Reporting
Fourteen-year old Leila Rustamova (not her real name) was almost speechless when she found out that her father was giving her in marriage to his school friend, a businessman from Russia 23 years her senior. But like many children brought up to obey their elders, Leila complied with her father's will.
After the wedding, and now pregnant by the "uncle" - the term she used for her husband - Leila began suffering from frequent fainting fits. In the fifth month of pregnancy, she went into shock and was rushed to hospital, where the foetus was removed by emergency Caesarean section.
"Because her body -that of a child - was not ready to carry a foetus, the only means of saving the girl was removing the infant surgically," said Leila's surgeon, who asked not to be named.
Experts believe that in the Massaly region of southern Azerbaijan, underage marriages are widespread. Girls of 14 and 15 are married off, although the law sets the marriage age for women at 17, and for men at 18.
According to Alizair Aliev, regional head of the bureau of statistics, between 700 and 1,000 legal marriages are recorded in Masally region every year. But experts believe the number of underage marriages exceeds that figure.
"There isn't a village in the region where these marriages do not take place," said doctor and medical expert Mehman Aliev.
The specialists say early marriages are a symptom of economic hardship, since families are then able to rid themselves of an extra mouth to feed.
According to Aliev, who is spokesman for a non-governmental organisation, NGO, called Migrants and Us, there are 30,000 to 40,000 men from Masally region living in other countries. Many have got married there, creating a surplus of unmarried girls back home.
In traditionally-minded homes, a daughter who stays unmarried is viewed as a blow to the family reputation, even a catastrophe.
"That's why, when a matchmaker turns up, and from a wealthy family besides, a marriage is considered even if the girl is 14 years old," said Zaira Bairamova, spokesperson for the NGO My Family. If a girl isn't married by 20, her chances of marriage are drastically reduced, she added.
The bridegrooms are often rich, older Azerbaijanis living in Russia, while the girls are from poor families.
"Such a mésalliance suits both families," said Bairamova. The bridegroom gets a wife young enough to be his daughter, and the father of the bride gains a rich relative and access to his money.
Apart from Leila, the Rustamov family has three other daughters. The father, the family's sole breadwinner, only has occasional work. "I wanted my daughter to be happy, but it turned out the opposite," he confessed bitterly.
The young brides often suffer health problems, and also lose out on schooling.
"Some of them lose the ability to have children, and several develop psychological disorders," said Ali-Aslan Alamov, a doctor.
Bairamova commented that many adolescent girls dropped out of school, their absence often going unnoticed. In the village of Arkivan, one girl had been married for two years, yet her name continued to appear on the school roll as if she was attending, and she was even awarded grades.
"The schools are not at fault for this," said a local headmaster. "The parents alone are responsible for the personal lives of their daughters."
In a predominately Shia region close to Iran, some see external influences at work. One observer who asked not to be named suggested that the practice of marrying young girls off was being imported to Azerbaijan.
"That is completely absurd," responded Haji Mirgiyas Tahmazov, a cleric in the southern region. Islam does not prescribe a specific age for marriage, which is instead dependent on physical and psychological maturity.
Tahmazov pointed out that the Council of Qazis, or Islamic judges, part of the government-approved Board of Muslims of the Caucasus, has issued a directive stating that clerics should only allow Muslim weddings if a marriage certificate is presented, and that the approved age es that the religious ages for women and men must correspond to Azerbaijani law and be 17 and 18 years respectively. Moreover religious figures are told to perform wedding ceremonies only after the presentation of a marriage certificate.
But in practice, there are reports that people go through the religious ceremony as a way of sanctioning an otherwise illegal marriage with a minor. For the wife, that creates the additional problem that she is deprived of legal rights. "There is no obligation to settle questions of property and inheritance between the two parties," said independent lawyer, Raj Rajev.
Rajev said giving away 14 to 16 year-old girls in marriage is a criminal act, as articles 152 and 153 of Azerbaijan's Criminal Code stipulate that sex with someone under 16 is punishable by two to three years imprisonment.
The lack of a legal foundation for underage marriages causes problems for the children born from them. Mehman Aliev said that children born from these marriages do not always receive birth certificates - which can delay entry into school - or other allowances granted by the state.
"Moreover, these children are born at home, under unsuitable medical conditions, which often leads to the ill health of the child," he added.
"And what will become of their upbringing? How can a mother who still plays with dolls, with neither education nor skills in child-rearing, provide a valuable citizen to society?" asked Bairamova.
Bairamova says that the girls suffering from this practice are currently defenceless. Azerbaijani NGOs fighting for women's rights can be counted on the fingers of one hand. A partial solution, she suggests, would be the establishment of a Women's Crisis Centre in the Masally region, where child brides could at least receive professional advice.
Leila's father is now in Russia with her husband. She has recovered from her illness. A large brick-red doll with golden hair and blue eyes is her only consolation.
Still a child herself, she is overcome with tears when she hears the joyful squeals of children playing on the street.
Zamin Tairov is deputy editor of Canub Habarlari newspaper in Masally. An earlier version of this article was published last month as part of IWPR's Azerbaijan regional training project.