Aigun and Sunar Ismailova’s world shattered along with their best friend’s Khatira on a crisp spring day in 2014 when she was kidnapped on her way home from school in their village of Kabali, in eastern Georgia. Khatira and Aigun, then both 16, were walking down the street when a car stopped near them, a stranger got off and forced Khatira into the vehicle. Three other men helped him. The girls screamed, but the street was empty, nobody could help them.
The man was later arrested and sentenced to one year behind bars. Yet, in a society where tradition rules, the shame was on the girl. Once released, in 2015, Khatira’s family forced her to marry her kidnapper. Aigun and Sunar have rarely seen their friend since then, and always by accident.
The Caucasus has long had a reputation of bride kidnapping whereby single young men abduct their bride of choice, thus pressuring them and their families to marriage. Outlawed during the Soviet Union, the practise started to soar once the USSR broke down, when unemployment, political and social instability gripped the country. Bride kidnapping has been criminalized since 2004 and forced marriages since 2015 and are punished with up to 400 hours of public labour or up to two years in jail. Most underage marriages however slip through the net as they are not registered and the couple marries only in the local church or mosque.
Khatira’s case, however shows that the practise is still alive and it has far-reaching consequences. Fearing for his daughters, a fate similar to Khatira’s, Nadira Ismail decided to take Sunar and Aigun out of school.
For Sunar, his youngest, it was a tragedy. The then-15 year old girl loved studying and her dream was to become an elementary teacher. She wanted to teach Georgian. Like in other areas populated by ethnic minorities, Georgian is rarely heard in Kabali - at families’ gatherings, at the market, or in offices; the native language, in her case, Azerbaijani, rules. The result is that the knowledge of Georgian, necessary to studying at university and to find better-paid jobs, remains limited, hindering ethnic minorities’ social and economic development as well as integration. Sunar wants to break this cycle.
Then Khatira was kidnapped and for a month the sisters sat at home. It could have been the end of it, but then Laura Kharitonashvili came to the rescue. Kharitonashvili heads the non-profit organization Vejeni - after the homonym village she hails from in Lagodekhi, an ethnically diverse region on the southern slopes of the Caucasus mountains. She has been active in raising awareness about the problems of early marriages in the country since 2012.
“It is a conservative and closed society,” explains the energetic 78 year old. “In Kabali and neighbouring Iormughanlo, the situation for early and forced marriages is particularly dire. It requires a lot of time for people to open up, and trust strangers to even talk about such a touchy issue.”
Precise numbers to define the phenomenon are hard to get, the same applies to underage marriages.
Figures from the Ministry of Justice show that in 2015, 611 underage marriages were registered, of which only 17 involved an underage boy and in only 16 cases both bride and groom were under 18. In 2014 the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) found that Georgia had one of Europe’s highest rates of underage marriages - up to 17 percent of Georgian women marry before turning 18, at par with Moldova and before Turkey (14 percent)
The phenomenon is more widely spread in rural areas, but not limited to, and areas and reasons vary with poverty and the lack of education, as well as rooted patriarchal values and religious practices remaining the main motifs. Kabali follows this pattern. Unemployment is high and most families live out of basic agricultural trade at the local market with some families, like the Ismailis, receiving some support from relatives working in Russia or Kazakhstan.
“I am so scared of bride napping, I still remember my girl [AIgun] running home fearful when her friend was kidnapped,” Nadira recalls over a cup of tea in his house in Kabali. Fluent in Georgian, he helped Kharitonashvili as a translator in her meetings in the village. “Often parents drive the girls to, or children walk in groups to avoid kidnapping.”
His fears are grounded as early as 2014 when the Public Defender’s Office reported that three girls were abducted around the school in Kabali. Yet, asked what he thinks about girls marrying young, he says he is “not against it.”
“Aigun liked someone and then I thought it would be better to get her married rather than kidnapped. It is a shame, you know.”
And it happened. Aigun finished the mandatory nine years of school and on October 9, 2014, at 16, she wedded with Janqiq, two years her senior. She dropped out of school, got pregnant and a few weeks before her 18th birthday she is now expecting second child. In Georgia the minimum age for marrying is 18 but since January 2016 the court can grant consent to marry individuals over 17 and, under special circumstances (such as pregnancy or the birth of a child) to 16 years old.
Once the knot is tied, girls are taken out of school, get pregnant soon afterwards, and then almost always stay at home to look after the children; they become totally dependent on their husband. Many families do not see why a teenage girl should pursue an education, if her primary role will be housekeeping and childrearing. The Ministry of Education’s data shows that in 2015 224 schoolchildren between 14 and 16 years and 351 between 17 and 18 left schools on grounds of marriage.
Kharitonashvili, who started her social work over 20 years ago, distributing medicine to Georgians displaced by the war in Abkhazia in the early 1990s, facilitated over 70 meetings in the area. Or rather, 70 conversations over a cup of tea, as she calls them - women and men would gather separately at a private house, sitting around a table with baklava [a traditional Azerbaijani dessert], sweets, and tea. In some cases, imams from the local mosque would also come.
“It was really casual. Women spoke about their everyday problems in the beginning. Some would tell us stories of their girls or girls in the neighborhood and we would later come up with our targeted problem to discuss,” Kharitonashvili notes.
The project, supported by ACCES, a programme by the East-West Management Institute (EWMI) to "advancing civil society organizations' capacities and engaging society for sustainability, closed in December 2015. The work is far from done and, as ACCESS received vital funding for five years, the overall programme will run through 2019.
“Lots have been accomplished in terms of awareness about the legislation as well as the opportunities girls should be offered, yet more work is needed,” explains ACCESS’ Manana Tatishvili.
Bridenapping seems to be declining, although it has not disappeared, but underage marriages remain common - marriages are often arranged by the families when they are still very young, and what the girl thinks or feel interests few.
“Girls shun to openly speak about marrying young,” says Kharitonashvili. “Talking to them it surfaces that in most cases they don’t even know their future husbands. “If we won’t like them we won’t marry them,” they told us but I guess this answer was meant for us. This is the rule, and they cannot protest it, but many of them want to continue their education,” Laura remarks.
While working on preventing young girls to marry, Kharitonashvili is also thinking how to support those who are already married with some kind of employment opportunities to help them generating some level of financial independence.
Now 17, Sunar has other plans. Now in 11th grade, she determined to continue school, unlike many of her peers - in her class out of 25 pupils only seven are girls, in her brother’s ten girls are vastly outnumbered by 30 boys. Kharitonashvili believes that the girl will be able to continue her education through university and she plans to work more with Nadira to make sure he will not force his daughter to marry instead.