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Advocacy groups are educating the public in a bid to save young girls from becoming victims of unlawful matrimony.
By Bakyt Ibraimov
OSH – Karamat – a 15-year-old schoolgirl – disappeared in May 2011 without finishing the school year or taking her final exams, alarming her teachers.
"Only a few days later did we discover that [her] parents had married her off to a grown man from a neighbouring village," Abdykarim Saginbayev, who works in the education department of Karasuy District, Osh Oblast, told Central Asia Online.
The under-age marriage happened despite efforts by educators to discourage the practice.
"We work closely with civil society activists," he said. "We conduct educational work with ... schoolgirls and explain to their parents the perils and harm of early marriage."
But Karamat's mother, who encouraged her daughter to skip classes and marry, was "ill-educated," highlighting the need for a more concerted effort against the practice, he said.
Now, Kyrgyz civil society groups are working to prevent early marriages, citing professional opinions that early marriage robs girls of their childhood, their legal rights and sometimes their health as the impetus for the fight.
Protecting the rights of women and girls
Though the legal marriage age in Kyrgyzstan is 18 (17, if a girl is pregnant or has given birth), about 12.2% of women get married before that, according to 2012 research by the UN Population Fund.
"Forcing the under-aged to marry is considered a crime in Kyrgyzstan," lawyer Idirisbek Kubatbekov, the Osh chairman of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, told Central Asia Online. The punishment can be as much as two to three years in prison, in accordance with articles 154 and 156 of the Kyrgyz Republic Criminal Code, he said.
Unfortunately, the law alone cannot end the problem, officials say, and that realisation has prompted the broader civic action.
"We have been monitoring the situation for four years, and as part of our activities, we are conducting information campaigns among young people and their parents, and distributing booklets and broadcasting public service announcements ... with the aim of educating our population," Avazkan Ormonova, director of the NGO DIA (Demigeluu, ishkerduu ayaldar – Women with Initiative), told Central Asia Online.
DIA is engaged in preventing early marriages in southern Kyrgyzstan. The organisation works with 112 village-level women's councils, social protection agencies and law enforcement in Osh – both the city and the oblast -- to eliminate legal ignorance among older schoolgirls, she said.
The goal is not only to monitor women's rights but also to provide psychological and legal support if women find their rights violated, Ormonova said.
Protecting a woman's legal rights
One factor that makes it difficult for authorities to stop early marriages regards how they are conducted.
Under standard practice, a couple can go to a qazi, an Islamic judge who performs a registration ceremony and then provides documentation of the event. But this "nikah" marriage lacks the standing of marriages registered by the state.
"About 90% of early marriages in Kyrgyzstan are not registered [with the state]," Almaz Esengeldiyev, a special adviser to Freedom House, said.
In many cases of under-age marriage, the couple will separate years later and the woman will have no legal standing when it comes to property rights and other such matters, Esengeldiyev said, stressing the need for registration.
Official registration is what enables the state to protect woman's rights after divorce or abandonment, he said. "If not, young married girls ... become vulnerable."
Early marriage can create health risk
Besides looking out for a woman's legal rights, the latest push to stop under-age marriages is designed to protect a woman's health.
Young women in such marriages often end up pregnant at a young age, too, and pregnancy is one of the most common causes of death among teen girls, said Ykybal Kazakbayeva, an obstetrician-gynaecologist at the Marriage and Family Clinic in Osh.
"Girls of 15-17 should not give birth," Kazakbayeva told Central Asia Online. "At such a young age, they are not yet ready for motherhood. They have not developed the mental strength and character for it, even though they might look like adults."
Pregnancy at such an age often ends in a miscarriage, which leads to trauma, inflammatory conditions and infertility, she added.
"We intend to go further in ... averting and preventing early marriages by conducting information campaigns," said Ormonova. "Civic organisations – with the support of international partners – are consolidating their efforts to reduce the number of early marriages, which have a negative influence on the health of young girls."