When she was 16, Kibriyo Khaitova’s parents told her that if she didn’t marry, she’d soon be a spinster. So, like many girls from Tajikistan, Khaitova married a man her family found for her. Now 20, she has two children, no husband and is fending for herself.
“My parents told me that I was old enough and that I needed to get married,” said Khaitova, who lives in the Ferghana Valley, an area of Central Asia where traditional, conservative social attitudes are entrenched. “I told them that I wanted to continue my education, but they said that men do not like educated girls and you do not need an education to be a good wife. The first time I saw my husband was at my wedding. I was very scared, but my grandmother told me I would be fine.”
Tajikistan’s widespread poverty is a major cause of early marriage in the country, according to a recent report by the Eurasia Foundation. In rural families, boys become the main breadwinners and girls are often considered financial burdens.
“Some parents feel that their daughters can be better supported by the husband’s family, and marrying them off [early] is a way to conserve their own limited resources,” Azita Ranjbar, the author of the report, told EurasiaNet.org.
The groom’s family also has a motive to push their sons to wed young girls. When Tajik girls marry they become “kelins” (daughters-in-law) and usually live with the husband’s family. While an educated woman might challenge the submissive role a kelin is supposed to play, Ranjbar says, “younger girls are seen as more likely to be obedient, assisting their mother-in-law with chores and, in some areas of the country, subsistence farming.”
Since July 2010, Tajik law has said men and women must be 18 years old to marry. But in practice underage marriage is still common. In fact, the law has had an unintended effect: Because couples cannot register a marriage wherein one party is under 18 years of age, many simply have a local religious leader perform the wedding ceremony. Later, without a civil registration certificate, the bride has few rights in the eyes of the courts.
“Harsh punishments are required to reduce incidences of underage marriage,” says Azim Bayzoev, a professor of gender studies at the Tajik National University. “But by increasing punishment, you also decrease the instances of registration.”
“To be effective, the law needs to be strictly enforced, but there is a lack of capacity and will from local government to do this,” he adds.
Throughout Tajikistan, there is also a growing dependence on Islam to fulfill functions the wilting state can no longer handle. In many rural areas, where local officials do not have the power or the motivation to help, religious leaders offer solutions for everyday problems. “Islamic law supports early marriage, offering families a way out of supporting their daughters,” says Bayzoev.
Moreover, Islamic clerics are often willing to perform the religious ceremony regardless of whether the couple has registered with the state. “The Koran does not define a minimum age for marriage,” a Dushanbe imam who asked to remain anonymous told EurasiaNet.org. “Islam encourages women to marry at a young age. This means that they can have children, which is a woman’s duty.”
Women entering polygamous marriages, condoned by Islam but officially banned by the state, also cannot register.
At age 15, Dilnoza Rahimova’s family forced her into a marriage with a man over twice her age. As his third wife, Rahimova endured abuse from his first wife, who felt threatened by the newcomer. “One night he came home drunk and forced himself on me,” she told EurasiaNet.org. “I told him I did not want to and that he was hurting me, but he would not stop.” Her mother told her that was just part of marriage.
Spousal rape is not uncommon in Tajikistan. According to a 2009 report by Amnesty International, whereas 11.1 percent of men admitted forcing their wives to have sex against their will, 42.5 percent of women report being forced by their husbands.
Divorce for an unregistered wife is often a last resort. “Without a registered marriage, it is extremely difficult for the wife to claim rights to jointly acquired assets and property, alimony, or child support,” says Ranjbar of the Eurasia Foundation.
There are no government statistics on underage marriages. Bayzoev of the National University says the practice became more common during Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war, when “girls were forced to marry early to prevent falling victim to rapists and losing their honor.” But the practice also was common in the pre-Soviet period.
Today, an upswing in underage marriages means more divorces, Bayzoev adds, “The immaturity of young couples and the forced nature of many marriages have undoubtedly contributed to the growing number of divorces in the country.”
Soon after she was married, Khaitova’s husband joined the legions of young Tajik men working in Russia as migrant laborers. After three years, he returned with a new wife. “He told me that he wanted a divorce and that I had two days to leave,” she told EurasiaNet.org. “Where could I go? I have two children. I have no education. I was forced to live off the charity of my relatives. I make 100 somoni (about $21) per month repairing clothes, but I cannot support my children.”