Vafa Humbatova was completely unprepared for married life – then a teenager of 17 years old, she dreamt of escape from her life of toiling in the fields and the drudgery of poverty. Instead, the shadow of poverty has followed her to her husband’s home in Azerbaijan’s central Imishli district.
“When I lived in my father’s house, I used to go to the fields to work every day. I thought after my marriage, my husband would look after me, and I would not have to go to the fields any more. But that did not happen,” Vafa says.
She is not an exception in Azerbaijan. Nearly 28,000 girls under the age of 18 were married in the country between the years of 2007 and 2017, according to official statistics.
Shahla Ismayil, chairperson of the Women's Association for Rational Development (WARD), a non-governmental organization, maintains that poverty and illiteracy play “a big role in the increased number of early marriages” in the country, and the problem is more acute in poor communities.
“Early marriages, early pregnancy and early childbirth are really dangerous. Delivering a baby at a young age can cause health problems for the mother, as well as the child. Most of the times it results in death of a mother and a child. Plus, young mothers don’t understand the responsibility of raising children, therefore there is problem for the future of child,” Ismayil says.
“I was completely uneducated. In general, my mother raised us to be fools,” Vafa Humbatova says, noting that she didn’t even realize she was pregnant until the fourth month.
Instead, she thought that she was sick and, as her health worsened, she went to the doctor and found out she would give birth in five months.
Vafa did not go back to the doctor until she went into labor and then, she regretted that she went to the hospital at all: the birth was difficult and she ended up staying for three days, a great cost that the family had difficulty paying.
“When they gave me the child at the hospital, I did not feel like a mother. I felt no joy, only sorrow,” she says.
“Other women are delighted to become mothers. I was only upset because I caused the family to have to spend so much money. All I could think about was how to raise her, how to cover the costs…so God punished me. Two months later, she died. It turns out an ulcer grew in her body. Later, I was told that if I had taken her to the hospital, she would have lived.”
Vafa gave birth to a second child, a baby girl, a year later, when she was 18.
When she found out she was pregnant for a third time, her family urged her to get an abortion because they could not feed another mouth. But it was too late, and she carried the baby to term.
But that child also ended up dying: when he was ten days old, the doctors told her he had a hole in his heart. The family could not afford to take him to the capital, Baku, to receive specialized care. “Since we didn’t have money to take him to Baku, to normal doctors, we asked quacks, who supposedly knew how to treat him. Instead, the hole grew and my son died when he was four months old,” she says.
“At the age of 25, I feel more dead than alive,” Vafa says, adding that she became “sick from grief” after the death of her third child.
Soon after, however, she found out she was pregnant again. She now has two little girls — a seven-year-old and a three-year-old.
Vafa, her husband and their two children live with her in-laws and her brother-in-law’s family: a total of 10 people in a three room house.
She cannot work due to her health issues, and so the family depends on her husband’s salary from his work at a local poultry farm. His salary is small, and paychecks are infrequent.
Vafa dreams of providing her daughters with a good education so they can avoid her fate.
“I hope God will give me the opportunity to send my daughters to study in the universities, so they will not be like me.”
Some families encourage their daughters to marry young, however. 18-year-old Aziza Aliyeva, who also lives in Imishli district,once dreamed of becoming a teacher. She had to drop out of school, however, once her family arranged her marriage. At 15, she was engaged and, a year later, she was married.
Aziza met her husband when she was 13: his father was her mother’s uncle.
“They came to visit us several times and I saw my husband. I liked him. It appeared he liked me too. It was interesting for me to fall in love, or to be engaged. However, I never thought of difficulties of marriage and pregnancy. And no one explained it to me – I was 13 at that time,” Aziza says.
Still, she ended up getting married even earlier than the families intended: they didn’t have the money for a traditional wedding so the couple initially planned to wait. But then her husband, who was 22, decided there was no point to waiting. The families, he said, would never be wealthy.
So they ran away. Sixteen days later, they had a wedding and, a month later, Aziza found out she was pregnant.
She was in extreme pain for the entire nine months.
“I went from 53 kg to 95 kg. My whole body was cracked and bleeding,” she said.
Aziza notes that she didn’t feel like a mother when she gave birth, and she still struggles with the role. “Maybe it is due to my age. When I came here, I felt like a child. I thought only about playing. My mother-in law said ‘Don’t worry, you will play with your child soon, you don’t need any other dolls’.”
But after her son, Mammad, was born, she was afraid to even touch him.
“He was so small, so weak… Also a bit strange to me,” she said.
Aziza’s mother-in-law ended up raising the baby, and her sister-in-law slowly taught her how to care for him. “He would wake up in the middle of the night and cry and cry. My husband could not help me. He was tired after work and slept like a rock,” she recalls.
Now Aziza says she wants to wait before having any more children. “ I hope I will feel like a mother when I am a bit older. And I don’t want second child until then.”
Gulmira Mammadova says her first pregnancy was “disastrous.”
She was married when she was 18, which she says is not considered early for her community in the village of Bajiravan, in Imishli district.
But it was too early for her.
“I was child, I didn’t know much. I just thought that I would have a normal life, my personal space… that I would be busy with cooking,” she says, adding that she thought marriage was a “kind of game.”
“Then I immediately got pregnant. It was disastrous. Later I was told that my body was too young to reproduce.”
Just four months after her first pregnancy, she found out she was pregnant again. But her body could not handle it: the fetus died during the pregnancy and Gulmira nearly died in the hospital.
“The child died in the eighth month of pregnancy and I didn’t realize it. I was being slowly poisoned – I was already unconscious when I was taken to the hospital. I am lucky that I am still alive today. I went through all that simply because I was uneducated,” she says.
Her husband is an electrician but the family can barely make ends meet. He works for families in the village and is paid a little over a dollar for every call. When there is no work, the family has no income.
Gulmira believes poverty killed her second child.
“I did not feel well during my second pregnancy. But I couldn’t afford to go to the doctor. … So, my baby died… Now I have two children. One is three and the youngest is one. My anxiety has doubled. Life has gotten so hard.”