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Georgia’s Invisible Brides

‘A woman who was kidnapped should tolerate everything, there is no other way out,’ a victim believes, whereas the men responsible rarely face serious punishment. From JAMnews. 

by Naniko Sisvadze 4 August 2017

Dozens of young women, mostly schoolgirls, are kidnapped in Georgia annually. A girl is grabbed, forced into a car, taken away and then coerced to marry the kidnapper.

 

“Abduction for the purpose of marriage” has become particularly widespread in the Kvemo Kartli region. As a rule, the kidnapped woman doesn’t have the support of her own family, who refuses to accept her since she is seen as “disgraced.” Her relatives, their neighbors and the community elders will most likely see the girl’s marriage as the most favorable outcome of the situation. Prosecutors will often strike a deal with the abuser, who usually receives only a light punishment.

 

Zarifa

 

On 28 April this year, Zarifa N., a 12th-grade student, was kidnapped from a schoolyard in Takalo village, in the Marneuli district (in southern Georgia), by a man 10 years her senior. The relatives searched for the girl for two days, and asked for her return, saying she didn’t want to get married.

 

Maka Menteshashvili, Zarifa’s Georgian language teacher, agreed with them: “Zarifa was an active person and she wanted to continue her studies at the university. We discussed the problem of early marriages at school, so I know her opinion in this matter.”

 

And yet she became trapped in the kind of scenario that in some regions of Georgia is planned to the last detail. In this case, the girl’s parents made a deal with the kidnapper and agreed to marry off their daughter to him. The district prosecutor’s office initially filed a criminal case, but soon agreed to negotiate with the accused. He paid a rather substantial sum to the family and was released. Thus Zarifa became a married woman without anyone asking for, or giving her consent.

 

The villagers see this story as something quite natural. Here, no one is surprised either by the initial reaction of the family or by the parents’ subsequent consent.

 

This village, like the entire district, is primarily populated by ethnic Azeris. Almost half of Georgia’s 220,000 Azeris live in Marneuli. Locals say bride kidnapping is part of their national traditions. And such attitudes provide an excuse for Georgian authorities to brush off the problem. Both the local and the central government turn a blind eye to hundreds of crimes committed against underage girls, while at the same time vigilantly maintaining compliance with the rest of the laws.

 

View of the Kvemo Kartli region

 

It is worth noting that the Kvemo Kartli region is neither remote nor isolated. This incident took place some 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Tbilisi, while this “tradition” is practically extinct in other parts of Georgia.  

 

Nahida

 

Nahida Abdullayeva, 30, is a resident of the Kutlari village, also located in the Marneuli district. She was kidnapped by a neighbor when she was 17.

 

“I had a farewell ceremony at school. I was so happy and I dreamed that I would go to Tbilisi to study, and then work in the police. My father had always been against me living far from the family, but I finally managed to talk him round. My parents went to the farm that evening, and I was at home with my younger brother. Our neighbor came and asked me for water. When I went out to fetch the water, several guys grabbed me and pushed me into a car.”

 

Nahida has two children now. Her sons are 11 and nine years old. Naturally, she couldn’t continue her studies and she rarely leaves the village.

 

“At first it was hard, but over a period of 13 years I’ve gotten used to this reality, too. I work from morning till night, I feel pain all over my body. When my family goes somewhere, they leave me at home as a prisoner and they put a big lock on the gate from the outside.”

 

Virtually every girl in Kvemo Kartli is aware that early marriage often results in the kind of life Nahida has. Yet almost all victims of bride kidnapping agree to marry.

 

Nahida says that a kidnapped girl is considered disgraced, and no other man will marry her.

 

“If she returns home, the neighbors will always point a finger of scorn at her, saying she is ‘blemished.’ ... No one wants to have such a daughter, and especially a wife, at home. So the girl stays with her ‘kidnapper.’ ”  

 

Aygun

 

Aygun Mammadova (the name has been changed), 15, a young wife, willingly tells us about her happy family life. Aygun was 14 when she was abducted in September 2016. She celebrated her 15th birthday in a new family. Aygun says she is happy and loves her husband. She believes a girl should be always ready to be kidnapped, and that there is nothing bad about it.

 

She doesn’t see early marriage as a problem either. “It’s customary here. If you don’t get married early, no one will marry you afterwards.”  

 

Aygun’s story is different than many because she knew her future husband pretty well, and by the time he abducted her, she was in love with him, despite her young age.

 

“My future husband kidnapped me so that the family could avoid extra expenses for the wedding,” she explains. Aygun quit school in the 8th grade and she isn’t going to continue her studies. She says it’s hard to combine family life and studies, and that her duty is to be a good wife and mother.

 

Hundreds of Georgian schoolgirls share Aygun’s opinion about the incompatibility of studies and family life. According to official statistics, 576 students quit school to get married in 2015 alone. Many civil activists consider this figure inaccurate and suggest that the actual number is higher.

 

Gunay

 

Gunay Bayramova was kidnapped at the age of 20. She first saw her husband-to-be at a betrothal ceremony after having met her future mother-in-law only once, when she came to Gunay’s house for “a cup of tea,” a kind of Azeri bride show where a young man’s mother  visits his future wife’s family to get acquainted and make arrangements for the wedding. Although the couple was already engaged, the groom kidnapped her anyway.

 

“Our guys really like the bride kidnapping process,” Gunay says, smiling.

 

Gunay and her family

 

“I wanted to return home after being kidnapped, but it’s not customary here. A woman who was kidnapped should tolerate everything, there is no other way out. So, I put up with it and I’m fine now.”

 

“The situation is changing, though very slowly,” says Kamila Mammadova, the director of the Marneuli Community Radio. She told us the story of a girl from an Azeri family who was kidnapped and held for five days. The girl’s parents pushed back against the stereotypes; they didn’t reject their daughter and didn’t agree to marry her off to her kidnapper. This situation was hard to imagine some 15 years ago.

 

Kamila also lives in Marneuli, but her life story is different from that of the majority of women in the region. She isn’t married. After graduating, she enrolled in a media school outside the region. Every day, she travelled to Tbilisi to attend classes. Not all of her friends shared such a craving for knowledge; for her, early marriage is a sensitive topic, she says.

 

Statistics and Guesses

 

Figures provided by the Office of the Public Defender (Ombudsman) of Georgia indicate that 4,599 girls quit school due to marriage between 2011 and 2014.  A total of 611 early marriages were registered in Georgia in 2015, compared to 665 in 2014.

 

These figures are based on the Georgian Education Ministry’s data. However, the ministry assumes they could be inaccurate because many schools in Kvemo Kartli region, where early marriages are particularly widespread, simply don’t keep such records, which are deemed unnecessary.

 

Nona Samkharadze, an activist with the Georgian Women’s Movement, has been working in Marneuli for many years. Although she is aware of fewer bride kidnappings now compared to past years, she sees little ground for optimism.

 

“Personally I can recall three such cases in the past few months. Two girls stayed with the kidnappers and one was brought home by her parents. I suspect that the latter happened just because the police found her relatively quickly, so the girl didn’t have to spend the night with the kidnapper,” thus sparing her the “disgraced” label, she says.  

 

Why Does the State Make Deals With Kidnappers?

 

Georgian law treats the abduction of a woman for the purpose of marriage as a criminal offence punishable by two to four years in prison, or up to 12 years if the victim is a minor. 

 

A law in effect since 2014 defines the offense of coercion into marriage, punishable by community service or up to two years in prison. The imprisonment can go up to four years if the victim is a minor. No one was charged under this law in 2015, according to the ombudsman’s 2016 report.

 

Household chores and children are what awaits most of the kidnapped brides.

 

A study conducted in 2016 by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency found that all of the 39 bride kidnapping cases heard in Kvemo Kartli courts ended with the man being given a suspended sentence, fined, and released.

 

According to the Georgian Interior Ministry, 14 criminal cases involving illegal deprivation of liberty were opened in the first five months of 2017. Six of those cases were reported in the Marneuli district, along with two cases for criminal coercion into marriage.

 

“The law defends the rights of abductees, while the state does not,” says Giorgi Mumladze, a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Studies.

 

“If an abductee and her relatives give their consent to marriage, the state reserves the right to mitigate the punishment, because that suits it well,” he adds.  

 

Many in Georgian law enforcement see bride kidnapping as a tradition rather than a crime, according to Samkharadze.

 

“In some cases, before kidnapping a bride, the kidnapper consulted his fellow policemen on how to avoid punishment,” the human rights activist says.

 

“I’ve been hearing for 20 years now that Kvemo Kartli is a ‘sensitive region’ and that the authorities cannot oppose the local traditions,” she says. “Community elders often side with kidnappers, persuading the girl’s relatives not to report it to the police.”

 

Gvantsa Khonelidze, the director of the Women’s Gaze NGO, also points out the problem of an entire mechanism working against the victims.

 

“A girl isn’t supported by her family, which refuses to accept her back home, regarding her as ‘disgraced’. The state and community also turn their back on her. So she has no other choice but to come to terms and live with it,” she says.

 

Is School the Solution?

 

Many young people we spoke to in Marneuli said bride kidnapping had nothing to do with tradition and that education is the key to suppressing it.

 

Maka Menteshashvili, the Georgian language teacher, has worked in an Azeri-language school in Marneuli for the past three years. She took the job to help Azeri students develop their Georgian language skills, but over time she says she realized that more than knowing the state language is needed in order to get a decent education and achieve success. On her own initiative, she opened a discussion circle in Takalo where young people can talk about human rights issues and learn about gender equality – subjects not covered by the Georgian school curriculum.

 

It’s a pressing problem, especially in isolated communities that live “according to patriarchal and religious rules,” she says.

 

According to data from the governmental Education Management Information System, 3.8 percent of Kvemo Kartli region students quit school during the 2015-2016 school year. In the Azeri schools, most early leavers are girls, unlike in Georgian schools, where boys make up the majority.

 

On average, one out of 10 girls enrolled in the Azeri schools does not complete her studies – five times the figure for Georgian-language schools.

 

“I can see some progress. The number of children graduating school is increasing year by year in Takalo,” Menteshashvili says.

Naniko Sisvadze is a contributor to JAMnews, a news and analysis site based in the South Caucasus where this article was originally published. TOL has done some editing to fit our style. Reprinted with permission.

 

Photos and video by David Pipia. All images courtesy of JAMnews. 

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