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Population Census Gets Under Way In Azerbaijan

Between April 13-22, a team of 24,000 researchers will conduct a nationwide population census in Azerbaijan. The data they gather will be computerized and quantified, and the results made public by the middle of 2010.

The census is the second since Azerbaijan became an independent state in the wake of the collapse of the USSR; the first was in 1999, at which time the total population was 7.953 million (compared with 7.029 million at the time of the 1989 Soviet census). Since 1999, the population has grown exponentially, topping 8 million by January 2001, and then increasing to 8.2 million as of early 2003, 8.347 million in early 2005, and 8.63 million as of January 1, 2008.

Citizens will be required to answer a total of 35 questions (in 1999 there were only 21), of which 29 relate to their personal circumstances (age/sex/marital status/ethnicity/native language, etc.) and the remaining six to their living conditions, State Statistics Committee Chairman Arif Veliyev told a press conference in Baku on April 10. By contrast, residents of Chechnya will have to provide answers only to around 20 questions in the All-Russian census in 2010.

The Azerbaijani census is expected to confirm current trends with regard to the age structure and ethnic composition of the population. In mid-2008, the average age was 31, and the number of persons 16 years of age or less was 5.25 million. In 1999, the titular nationality accounted for 90.6 percent of the total population; the second-largest ethnic group was the Lezgins (2.2 percent). But Lezgin sources dispute that figure, and claim that they number up to 850,000, reported on September 12, 2007. The third-largest ethnic group was the Russians (141,700, or 1.8 percent of the total population).

It is not clear, however, whether the census data will confirm and clarify two disturbing demographic trends that have been highlighted over the past few years in the Azerbaijani media: the increasing number of marriages involving girls under the age of consent (17 for girls, 18 for young men); and a corresponding steep rise in the illegitimacy rate.

Experts acknowledge that the problem of parents marrying off their daughters at an early age is widespread, especially in some southern regions of Azerbaijan. In the first six months of 2007, 4,342 underage girls were forced into marriage, reported on March 13, 2008. The total number of marriages in Azerbaijan during that year was 81,600, Veliyev told journalists on January 21, 2008.

Rukhangiz Guseynova, who heads an NGO that campaigns for women's rights, explained at a press conference in Baku last month that parents force their daughters to quit school and marry early less out of economic considerations -- to reduce the number of children they have to feed and clothe -- than on social and psychological grounds: an unmarried woman is considered an old maid by the age of 20-25, and therefore, the reasoning goes, it is better to marry off a daughter at the earliest opportunity.

Given that the age of consent is 17 for girls, marriages involving a girl under that age are generally formalized by a mullah but not registered with the authorities; in the southern districts of Azerbaijan, 90 percent of all marriages are not officially registered, reported on March 13, 2008.

The fact that marriages involving girls under the age of 17 are not always registered with the authorities is reflected in the number of children who, at least according to official records, are deemed illegitimate. According to official statistics quoted in a recent press article, one child in 10 is born out of wedlock; experts believe the true figure could be as high as 30 percent.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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