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In Azerbaijan, Brides Too Young To Marry Are Marrying Anyway

Young brides remain an appealing commodity, with many parents willingly pulling their female children out of school in order to marry them off at an age when they will be highly sought after.
Young brides remain an appealing commodity, with many parents willingly pulling their female children out of school in order to marry them off at an age when they will be highly sought after.
By Gulnor Novruzova and Daisy Sindelar
GANJA, Azerbaijan -- The hours before Aytan's wedding in this northern Azerbaijani town were a flurry of preparations.

She had already held a henna party with her friends the night before, sitting patiently as her hands were decorated with delicate, brownish-black vines and patterns. The next morning, she headed to the beauty parlor to have her hair carefully arranged and festooned with ornaments.

From there, she was heading straight to her wedding at home, where a small group of family members had been assembled for days, cooking and talking and planning the celebration. Even the honeymoon was arranged: Aytan and her groom had tickets to depart for Turkey the very next day.

But suddenly, the preparations came to a halt as police officials entered the beauty parlor and told Aytan the wedding was off. The reason? The marriage was illegal.

Aytan was just 13 years old.

"They were ready to get married at any minute," said Ilgar Balakishiyev, the deputy chief of police in Ganja. "When we saw the invitations, we were told the girl was underage, that she was 13. We invited her in and explained that this marriage was against the law."

Dreams Of Marriage, Security

Azerbaijani law stipulates that a young woman must be 17 in order to legally marry; according to the state statistics committee, on average women wait until they're 28 to wed. But law-enforcement officials and rights workers say the number of underage weddings is steadily rising in Azerbaijan, with some brides as young as 12 stepping into arranged marriages.

Critics say growing poverty may be one of the reasons for the trend. Aytan, who requested that her real name not be used, received permission from her mother to marry because the groom, a man in his 30s from a neighboring village, was prosperous and could promise her daughter a secure future.

"I got married myself when I was 13," Aytan's mother said. "I had a comfortable life until he died. Now I'm sick, and when they said there was no need to pay a dowry, I said I would let her get married."

Aytan appeared disappointed that her wedding plans had fallen through. A student at a local music school, she said she enjoyed her studies but that she had always dreamed of being a bride and getting married. The fact that neither she nor her mother had ever met her prospective husband -- and had only spoken to him a few times by phone -- didn't seem to trouble her. For now, however, the marriage is off.

Both mother and daughter blame relatives for reporting the wedding to the police, saying they were "jealous" of their good fortune. But Aytan's mother appears chastened, saying she now understands her daughter was too young.

"I've promised myself that she must be 25 before she even thinks about getting married again," she says.

'Easy Targets'

Police say they don't rule out the possibility that Aytan was being sold into marriage. They also say the hasty departure for Turkey -- along with the fact that Aytan had received a doctor's certificate confirming her virginity -- also raised suspicions that she might have been destined for a sex-trafficking ring, although no charges have been leveled against either her mother or the former groom.

Rights workers like Mehriban Zeynalova, the head of Temiz Dunya (Clean World), an NGO dedicated to women's issues, say underage marriages are forged through unofficial Islamic ceremonies that offer young brides no social protection and put them at risk of being neglected, abused, or even sold by their husbands.

"Without the proper life experience, most child brides aren't able to protect their family lives," she says. "The marriage quickly falls apart, and then problems appear. The girls become easy targets for trafficking and prostitution."

Trafficking is on the rise in Azerbaijan, an oil-rich country with a prosperous elite but where the majority of the population remain mired in poverty. In a 2010 report, the U.S. State Department described Azerbaijan as an active source country for trafficking, with many local children and women being sold into sex slavery in the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Russia, and Iran.

Even in instances where child brides do not fall prey to crime, the challenges of traditional married life can have a devastating effect on teenage girls. Maleyka Alizade, who heads a regional women's center in Ganja, says young girls are physically and mentally unprepared for the challenges of bearing children and raising a family, often with a husband who is decades older.

"Parents, for the sake of personal financial gain, are forcing girls of 13, 14, 15 years of age to give up their education and get married," she says. "How can a 13-year-old girl be a parent? She's a child herself. The baby will be nothing more than a toy doll to her."

Little Education

In Ganja and elsewhere, young brides remain an appealing commodity, with many parents willingly pulling their female children out of school in order to marry them off at an age when they will be highly sought after. Islamic leaders have also abetted the trend by providing religious marriage ceremonies for underage brides -- often for fees as high as $600.

Many schools -- particularly in the country's south, close to the Iranian border -- have seen the exodus of dozens of girls seeking early marriages. Naile Mamedova, the director of a school in Mashtaga, a town outside of the capital Baku, says many grooms are eager to find brides with little education, who they believe will be less likely to chafe under the confining role of wife and mother -- and that parents respond accordingly.

"In our village, people push their children to marry early," says Mamedova. "Very often, parents remove their children from school when they're in fourth grade, and they end up being married off when they are only 12, 13, 14."

Back in Ganja, Aytan is preparing to return to life as a schoolgirl. But after her dreams of being a bride -- and seemingly oblivious to the possible risks she was spared -- she's reluctant to go back.

"I'll be embarrassed in front of my friends," she says, sounding every bit like the teenager she is.

written by Daisy Sindelar in Prague based on reporting by Gulnor Novruzova in Ganja

Daisy Sindelar

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by: B
May 30, 2011 21:42
very interesting report

by: simon from: UK
May 31, 2011 11:50
Oh come on!! I have lived in Azerbaijan but if I did not know better I would read this article and think that the country is going backwards and cares nothing for sexual equality, child welfare , poverty or anything else!! This is a sad story, if it is true, but paints totally the wrong picture. The country recently celebrated the 20th year of freedom from USSR and during that time it has made massive progress. They have recently been praised for how well they are spending the income from oil revenues and developing the infrastrucure of the country AND helping all of the citizens not justy a few of the rich! About 20% of MPs are women - more than in the UK - and poverty and child mortality is improving year on year. Compare this to most other countries in the region or in fact most other developing countries and it is clear to see just how well Azerbaijan is doing!! It would be good to see a little more balanced reporting from the worlds media!!
In Response

by: Brandon from: US
May 31, 2011 21:11
@ Simon: So, journalists should never report about any social problems, because that would paint an unfairly negative picture of a country? Or does your rule only apply to certain countries? Or only to Azerbaijan? In any case, I don't understand the point of your objection. The article doesn't paint any sort of picture about broader processes in the country. It merely reports on a trend - a growing number of marriages involving young girls. It doesn't say that Azerbaijan is worse than other countries. It doesn't claim that there are no positive developments in the country. And where does the author say that this trend proves that Azerbaijan doesn't care about equality? That's a very peculiar interpretation, since the author includes a number of interviews with people who are trying to deal with the problem. I want to thank the author for bringing this story to readers' attention. I'm glad that people like simon aren't in control over what news is fit to print.

by: Sara Huseynova from: Baki Basqal
June 01, 2011 12:19
For a several days, there are some articles appear on radio “LIBERTY” which have anti-Azerbaijani attitude and approach. Current article is one of those. The meaning of the article comes to the point which states that Azerbaijan practices the early marriages for the young women of 12-13 years of age, as it was in “Jurassic Period”.
It is needed to say, that it is not possible in the country, where there are laws on protection of honor of the young women. The facts stated in the article, do not reflect the real situation in the republic.
The Republic of Azerbaijan is highly developed country, which has historical traditions along with the statutory laws, which can not be breached by anyone. Needless to say, that without the consent of the young women none of the parents will agree for marriage.
As per legislation of Azerbaijan, women who have reached 18 years, can get married. Breach of this law is the criminal offence. Therefore, I do not thing that this can happen in Azerbaijan.
From the other side, there are good facts, that the youth are willing to have families, to have their own home, which is not followed in Europe, where there is a breach of moral foundation and norms. Families are getting separated, unisex marriages are taking place, the natural course of human development is broken and etc.
Recommendation to the author of this article is to follow these topics, rather than concentrating on the marriages in Azerbaijan.

In Response

by: Batu from: Germany
June 01, 2011 17:36
I agree with you Sara. But you know these media are controlled by some suspicious people anyways so who cares what they say ?
Besides I live in Europe and witness a low fertility rate here. Whole Europe will collapse if they go on like this. But the funny part is: They justify/ explain this low fertility rate and less marriages by education. They say: the more there is education the less do people marry and get children. This will be their doom. Azerbaijan is an improving country and has many bad-intentioned opponents around him. Like Europe, Russia, Armenia, Iran etc. They should stop creating some weird ideas to explain why some people in azerbaijan marry early. I am educated and I will marry soon when I am 20 so what ?
In Response

by: Sara Huseynova from: Baki Basqal
June 06, 2011 15:45
Dear Batu, thanks for your understanding. Unfortunately, you are also right by stating that anti-Azerbaijan propaganda is taking place in Europe, Russia, Armenia and other countries.
I am cheering your decision to get married at age of 20. Can you imagine that after 2 years all your neighbors will be calling you “young parent”.
Previously, early marriages were taking place in Europe as well and Europe was not suffering from this. On the contrary, because of this European values have been created related to the sanctity of family, respect to elders, observance of moral standards, decencies, advantages and etc.
Now, legislation on legalization of unisex marriages is adopted. Shame and shame to such laws, giving a wide field for action of mentally retarded people, for which best place is the hospital for mentally handicapped, rather than European society.
Azerbaijan democratic country with strong moral foundations, denying unnatural marriages and of course it will never happen in our republic, because Azerbaijan society strictly observes foundations of our statehood; traditions and the customs based on mutual respect of people.
Europe and similar countries are degraded and this is not related to the education. Education – is the gaining of knowledge for the understanding of people’s role in human development. As a member of human society, you must create your own family, raise your children and to carry out your duty to the Founder with honor. In this respect Azerbaijan is not comparable with any country. Let’s them say whatever they want. Azerbaijan society is the healthiest society in the world; therefore the enemies of our people are aggressively incited against us.


by: luzmejor from: Roswell, NM
June 01, 2011 14:20
I'm sorry, but people who sell their children are not entitled to respect. They are treating innocent humans like merchandise. Who would trust them with the lives of anyone else?

by: cubicle from: canada
June 01, 2011 20:11
I think the readers are being unfair to the author of this article. The article clearly identifies the fact that this marriage was thwarted by the police suggesting to me that there is some semblance if the rule of law in Azerbaijan. That is a good thing.

Explaining the the specific circumstances surrounding this young lady i.e. socio-economic status and potential risks she was facing are interesting and important points.

I did not get the impression that the whole country was moving in this direction. It is a facet of the overall milieu resulting from a growing dichotomy between the rich and the poor. this dichotomy is manifesting itself in different ways all over the world.

Generally an interesting article and worth reading.

by: Linda from: US
June 03, 2011 02:02
I also have lived in Azerbaijan and recently left. While I was there, I had heard anecdotal evidence, and knew girls who were engaged at age 13, but waited until at least 16 to get married. In each case I knew about, the girls were very anxious to get married. In one family I lived with, the daughter wanted to get engaged at age 13, while the parents wanted her to attend college and be married later.

Not to say that parents are not forcing their daughters to marry in some cases. But what I don't understand is Americans wringing their hands about this sort of thing in another country, when right here in America we have pregnant unmarried 12, 13, and 14 year-olds and no one seems to have the same level of indignation about our own situation.
In Response

by: Brandon from: US
June 03, 2011 13:56
Where do you see Americans "wringing their hands" about this story? I don't even understand why you mention America at all. This story is about Azerbaijan, not America. What a peculiar reaction. Sure, I suppose that many American readers, including myself, are "concerned" about this issue. But apparently many Azerbaijanis are also concerned about it, since the author interviewed Azerbaijanis in government and civil society organizations who are trying to change the situation.

Your claim that we don't have the same level of indignation about problems in our own country is pure, absolute rubbish. First of all, I don't understand the ridiculous notion that a person can't be concerned about problems in multiple countries. Why can't I be concerned about underage marriage in another country AND teen pregnancy in America. Is there some rule that says you can't be concerned about both? Should we just read news about what happens at home and not concern ourselves about other countries? What an unbelievably provincial, ignorant mindset.

And I don't understand the point in your personal anecdotes. So what if you knew girls who got engaged at 13 but waited until the legal age to actually get married. This article isn't about those situations. It's about girls who actually DO get married before the legal age. So your examples are completely irrelevant.

by: linda from: US
June 03, 2011 14:40
Brandon, this forum is pretty respectful, so I was surprised when you used words like "ignorant" and "unbelievably provincial". This type of approach l won't help anyone understand your position. If you are angry, maybe wait awhile before responding.

To help you understand where I am coming from, I will say more about the American handwringing. When we invaded Iraq and set up a temporary government, many Americans, even conservatives, tried to insist that the new Iraqi constitution have an equal rights clause for Iraqi women. This came out of the feeling that Muslim women are denied their rights and there was much evidence to back it up.

This move surprised me very much, because American women don't have equal rights guaranteed in our constitution because there is so little interest in it and there is even a plank in the Republican platform against the Equal Rights Amendment. The rights women do have here are in the Civil Rights Act, which comes up for renewal every 14 years. There is usually a real fight to get it renewed.

I am trying to show that we tend to see the faults in other countries a lot easier than we see our own faults. Yes, some girls are married too early in Azerbaijan. We should be upset about this, but also about girls with big problems in our own country. When I was there, I noticed we tended to identify Azerbaijani problems immediately, but didn't think so much about our own--maybe because the poor and desperate usually don't live among middle-class Americans.

by: Brandon from: US
June 04, 2011 14:17
Linda: I apologize if the rhetoric in my previous post was a bit too harsh and inconsiderate. You make a lot of good points in your reply. I guess I just have a negative visceral reaction to this tendency I've seen in a lot of comment sections; whenever a story like this is published that analyzes a social problem in another country, it inevitably leads to a number of comments along the lines of your comment. Curiously, these types of reactions never seem to follow from news articles about say, Germany or France or Italy. I guess it's fine to criticize problems there, but as soon as an informative article about a little-known phenomenon in Azerbaijan is published, then it becomes impolite or imperialistic for an American to take an interest in it.

I completely agree with your assessment of the Iraqi conflict and the hypocrisy of many American conservatives. Absolutely. But nobody is talking here about invading Azerbaijan. So, I don't know, I think the Iraq invasion comment is a bit of a red herring? And yes, you're right that humans have an innate tendency to see the faults in other societies before we see the faults in our own. But that fact shouldn't be an obstacle to following the news and taking an active concern in the affairs of other countries. And I should further point out that this tendency to see the faults in others first isn't confined to westerners. Look at the comments from Sara and Batu; they obviously wanted to defend Azerbaijan, but instead of stopping there, they go on and talk about the moral decay of western societies and fault women who choose not to have children. Are you equally bothered by their generalizations as you are by whatever generalizations the American commentors might have made?

I guess I'd conclude by pointing out that this website has an in-built bias towards critical stories, so I'm puzzled by all the harsh reactions to this story. This site is devoted to promoting freedom in this region, so most of the stories are going to focus on shortcomings in that area. That's what its focus is. If you want stories about the progress and accomplishments that Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan and Belarus have made, there are other news sources that specialize in that. Similarly, if you want stories about socio-economic problems in America, pick up an American newspaper. I can only speak for myself, but I see no logical problem being concerned with human rights and freedom in every society, including my own and others.
In Response

by: Sara Huseynova from: Baki Basqal
June 07, 2011 12:12
Dear Brandon, from USA, I want to emphasize the fact, that I am? as a true citizen of the Republic of Azerbaijan? really defend their homeland from such biased analysis of our reality. Unfortunately, Azerbaijan - the young republic in the world political map, and the world knows very little about this beautiful province. We do not want ,to idealize the country, but we feel that the attitude towards Azerbaijan is not friendly. Probably? this is due to the ignorance of Azerbaijan and its wonderful people
We are not looking for flaws in the U.S., but we want to take their democratic values. However, the immoral behavior of American Christian pastors and some American congressmen and senators scares us that American society is disintegrating.
We've noticed that even in the victory of Azerbaijanis in the Eurovision Song Contest in doubt. You do not want to believe that this is possible in a small country.
Again, this is due to the fact, that you do not know the present Azerbaijan, its long history. Arrive in Azerbaijan and see for yourself, what is written in the case of a single article.
In Response

by: Brandon from: US
June 07, 2011 13:57
Wow, I'm not sure where to begin...
1. You say that you don't want to "look for flaws in the U.S.," but your entire reply to Batu was a long rant about the moral decay of western society. So, I guess it's perfectly fine for you to make gross generalizations about the West, but when a journalist writes a story about ONE social phenomenon in Azerbaijan, it's a horrible insult to your nation and you fly into an immature rage.
2. I have no problem discussing flaws in American society. I freely acknowledge that there are many socioeconomic, political, and cultural problems here. Of course, I think that you and I probably have very different ideas about what those problems are. I don't have very much to say to somebody who refers to homosexuals as mentally retarded and says that they should be locked up. I find your comments about homosexuals and mentally disabled people repugnant.
3. You say you don't want to "idealize the country," yet you write in your response to Batu that "Azerbaijan is not comparable with any country" and "Azerbaijan society is the healthiest society in the world." Do you know what "idealize" means? This is childish, arrogant, nationalist rubbish. I don't see much value in debating somebody who is so unwilling to acknowledge the flaws in their society.
4. I would love to visit Azerbaijan. I have met many Azeris in the U.S., and I am fascinated by your country's history and culture. Where did I ever say otherwise? Just because I recognize that Azerbaijan, like every single country on the face of the earth, has some social and economic problems? You seem to have some kind of persecution complex, which seems be quite common among nationalists in all countries. Trust me, there isn't any global conspiracy against Azerbaijan, so don't worry. And if serious, intelligent articles about Azerbaijan make you so angry and defensive, maybe you shouldn't read them.
5. "You do not want to believe that this is possible in a small country." Huh?? First of all, congratulations to Azerbaijan on winning, I think it's great. A "small country"? Since 2001, here are some of the countries who have won Eurovision: Estonia, Latvia, Finland, Serbia. Azerbaijan has a bigger population than all of these countries, so I don't understand your point about bias against small countries. You seem to find anti-Azerbaijani persecution everywhere you look.
In Response

by: Sara Huseynova from: Baki Basqal
June 08, 2011 12:39

Dear Brandon
I glad that, you are passionate about Azerbaijan. You interested in the problems of Azerbaijan. Every society has its drawbacks and the positive side, but People from East said that: friend telling the truth in the eye but a bad one to wash dirty linen in public .I can say that, in recent years, Azerbaijan is booming .Our Baku became metropolis of Transcaucasia. Tens of thousands of buildings built in Azerbaijan. Each countries of the world has social and economic problems. Society without problem can’t develop. It is law of life. If the human don’t love motherland, then he cant speak positive about other countries. I know very well English literature and educated at the idea of Thomas More, Shakespeare , Jack London and others. All Azerbaijanis perceive that there is something good in other nations, including the U.S. Media creates anti-Azerbaijani image, in fact it is not so .


by: J from: US
June 05, 2011 00:37
It's a medieval society. What can I say- disgusting.

by: 13th Watcher from: Bangalore
June 05, 2011 11:24
I am tired of reading all that is happening in this world today. Where are we going and where have we come from those bygone eras! What ever happens now, has been happening from ions of years and nothing has changed the psyche of humankind, I guess nothing will. We are far advanced in our technologies, but still so babaric in our minds that make us the greatest of all predators on earth.
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