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.
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."
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