A debate is raging in Central Asia over the legal age that women can marry. Rights activists say growing economic hardship throughout the region is forcing many women into marriages at younger and younger ages, a situation they say threatens the health and well-being of both the women and any children they may have.
Prague, 10 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Officially, the secular governments of Central Asia promote the active integration of women in social and political life. In Tajikistan, for example, every governmental organization is required by presidential decree to appoint a female deputy chief.
But in reality, many women in Central Asia are fighting for more basic freedoms. Throughout the region, women's rights advocates are pressing their governments to raise the minimum age at which women can legally marry.
Khairunniso Mirzojonova is a specialist with the Women's Committee of Uzbekistan, which has submitted a proposal to the country's parliament to raise the marriage age from 17 to 19. She said the change would spare many young women who simply are not prepared physically or emotionally for the burden of family life. "The Women's Committee of Uzbekistan has proposed that the minimum age of marriage should be changed from 17 to 19. From a physical point of view, young girls can only be ready to be wives and mothers when they're 19, at the youngest," Mirzojonova said.
A similar push is under way in Tajikistan, where the Association for Educated Women and rights activists are campaigning to return the minimum marriage age to 18, as it was during the Soviet Union. Nargis Nurullokhoja, who works in the Dushanbe office of the Oxfam advocacy and relief agency, said there are more and more instances of Tajik families forcing daughters as young as 16 into marriage. "[Early marriages] are a very big problem in Tajikistan. According to a recent sociological survey, 91 percent of parents are willing to force their daughters into an early marriage, sometimes at the age of 16 or 17. This problem is on the rise because of social and economic difficulties," Nurullokhoja said.
Women's rights advocates say early marriage is part of a vicious cycle of poverty that has affected the entire Central Asian region, particularly in rural areas where economic opportunity is virtually nonexistent and parents marry off their daughters because they cannot care for them themselves.
In turn, early marriages are contributing to a high rate of infant mortality, widespread pregnancy-related anemia, female depression, and a higher rate of failed marriages. Nurullokhoja said 80 percent of Tajik women suffer from anemia.
There is reason to believe the region's secular governments, with their customary support of women's rights, will pass the proposals raising the marriage age. But some activists argue that women's issues cannot be solved by decrees and a Soviet-style approach. They say the problem of early marriage is more systemic, springing from economic hardship and a lack of opportunities for young women.
Despite a widespread belief that early marriages are a part of Central Asian traditions, rights activists insist the problem would diminish if society provided more education and employment opportunities for girls.
Guljahon Bobosodiqova, chairwoman of the Tajik Association for Educated Women, said that work is being done to improve opportunities for girls and young women in the region. "Our organization, along with relevant UN agencies like UNICEF and UNESCO [the United Nations Children's Fund and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization], is setting up a regional meeting on girls' education in Central Asia. Improving women's education and skills would contribute to reducing their unemployment rate and other problems," Bobosodiqova said.
In most Central Asian countries, schoolchildren complete their secondary education at the age of 17. The only exception is Turkmenistan, where secondary schools have only nine grades, and students leave school at 15. Turkmen leaders openly promote a more traditional family structure, with men serving as the head of the household and women staying at home and raising the children.
In Turkmenistan, as well as in the rest of Central Asia, young women who graduate from secondary schools have few options regarding their future life. Few families can afford to send their daughters on to colleges or universities. Widespread unemployment leaves young women with little chance of finding a job with livable wages. In rural areas, employment opportunities for girls without higher education are almost nonexistent.
Dushanbe resident Gul Yahyoeva said her two daughters were married at the ages of just 17 and 14 because of her family's economic difficulties. "We have a difficult time financially. We can't afford our girls' education, and I cannot buy food and clothes for them. Marriage was the only option. I want stability for them," Yahyoeva said.
Some international and local NGOs such as UNIFEM (the United Nations Development Fund for Women) and Oxfam and local women's committees are volunteering to support young women in learning new skills and increasing their chances of finding employment and becoming more socially and economically integrated. Some organizations are providing loans for women to start small businesses. Tajik universities provide special quotas for girls who graduate from secondary schools in remote mountainous regions. Girls who enter university according to those quotas receive financial support from the government.