This week, hundreds of thousands of young people will graduate from secondary schools across Central Asia. A flurry of activity frequently accompanies the end of the school year, as girls in their late teens make the choice between continuing school or starting a family. Not all of them are rushing off to prepare for university or trade schools in the fall.
The destinies of some young girls are sealed -- they are getting married as soon as secondary school is finished.
A majority of the region's marriages are arranged by parents. Dating is uncommon in the villages of Central Asia; the idea of unmarried couples living together is virtually unheard of.
Hamida Imomova, a teacher in the Tajik town of Khujand, says some girls at her school distributed their wedding invitations even before their finishing exams.
"It is the same, both in cities and villages," Imomova says. "I have been working at schools for several years, and I have seen many girls -- the so-called 'lucky girls' -- who get married almost immediately after finishing secondary school. The girls invite us to their weddings, which take place once school is finished."
In Soviet days, many of the 17-year-old girls graduating from secondary preferred to continue their educations at one of the many centrally operated universities or colleges.
Back then, the ideal marrying age for those educated girls might have been 21 or 22.
But now -- even in this region, where many girls are married by their late teens -- marriage is coming sooner.
Alo Hamidova, an 18-year-old Uzbek student, tells RFE/RL that many of her female classmates, at a medical college in Tashkent, are married.
"These days, girls get married at 18 or 20. For instance, half of the girls here -- in the second year [of studies] at our medical school -- are married. That's how it is in Tashkent," Hamidova says. "In the rest of the country, girls get married a bit later - between 19 and 22 years old. Parents, first of all, want to find a rich bride. Her financial status and her parents' backgrounds are important."
Nowhere Else To Go?
A lack of alternatives appears to be contributing to a declining trend in the age of brides.
University education is not an option for many young women. Education is mostly free at many state colleges and universities in Central Asia. Still, not every family can afford expenses like dormitories or books.
There is also a perception that -- five years and lots of expenses after enrolling for higher education -- female graduates still face a particularly tough job market.
Just a handful of young women get the opportunity to study abroad, leading in some cases to handsome pay at international organizations.
Shahnoza Karimova, a Tashkent-based journalist, says that after graduating from secondary schools, many young women try to learn skills that can generate income.
"Hardly anyone would want a bride with university education, because [such women] can't find a job," Karimova says. "Parents prefer a bride with skills and jobs that bring money -- like dressmakers, embroiderers, and nurses. The boys leave for Russia after school in search of an income. The girls learn a new skill in the evening and work at the farms -- as laborers -- during the day. In such circumstances, parents are worried about their daughters' safety and try to marry them to a suitable person as soon as possible."
Divorces are not uncommon in Central Asia. But staying single forever is rarely a preferred option -- for many women, becoming a second wife to an older, married man is a real possibility.
Financial necessity is clearly one of the factors affecting the incentive to marry, judging by some of the areas where trends are reversed. While marriages are coming earlier for so many people in the region, increasing numbers of young adults in prosperous cities in energy-rich Kazakhstan are waiting into their 30s to marry. In many cases, they are willing to postpone the joys of family life in favor of achieving more in their careers.
Elsewhere, however, the ranks are growing of young men and women who have settled down early to start their families. With jobs in short supply in much of Central Asia, the arguments for waiting are simply losing out.
Running out of alternatives -- and pressured by conservative traditions to marry early -- many young women in countries like Tajikistan are exchanging ambitions of higher education for the stability that they hope to find in their newfound family life.