Countries Start Taking Action against Early Marriages

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Peter PZ
An Azerbaijani wedding in Baku. In regions of Azerbaijan, early and forced marriages are on the rise.

On July 2, 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted the first substantive child marriage-focused resolution calling for a strengthening of efforts to prevent and eliminate child, early, and forced marriages.1 With 15 million girls worldwide pushed into early marriages every year, the statement comes at a critical time. The alarming statistics highlight the dramatic lack of reform or progress so far. Fortunately, afflicted countries are finally heeding the UN’s call to take action against early marriages.

Take Azerbaijan, where early marriage is a prevailing issue, a project has materialized to make major efforts against the increasing trend. The project analyzed several regions in the Eurasian country, confirming the prevalence of early marriages, and is now working to propose several reform recommendations to the State Department. In 2013, 5000 girls in Azerbaijan were victims of early marriages, an increase from 4000 in 2012. A UNICEF study confirmed that early marriage “not only takes place, but is increasing in some of the regions of Azerbaijan.”2 Although it is evident that early marriages are on the rise, the primary cause of this trend is not clear. Early marriages often go undocumented as a consequence of unregulated religious ceremonies that are used to officiate the marriages. The practice of early marriage is attributed to a culture that believes that women are predestined to be wed and that marriage can serve as a means to preserve female honor. Economic instability or financial security can also play a role.

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Vladimir Varfolomeev
An Azerbaijani bride celebrates her wedding in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan is the most southerly nation of the Caucasus region, located east of Turkey and North of Iran. Although classified as a secular state, 95 percent of the Azerbaijani population identify as Muslim. The current ruling party, the New Azerbaijan Party, which has been in power since the nation’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1992, has been accused of rampant political corruption.3 A corrupt government makes certain laws difficult to monitor, and although there is legislation in place to regulate early marriages, it is rarely enforced. According to the Azerbaijani criminal code, forcing a girl into marriage is punishable by a 3000 to 4000 manat fine (approximately USD$2800–$3800) or up to four years imprisonment. However, the increase in early marriages shows that the laws aren’t working. The current Azerbaijani project seeks to take on a different legislative approach in combating early marriages, looking at education as the primary approach to prevent early marriages instead of punitive retribution. The education-centric proposals aim to increase the number of television and radio programs to combat early marriage and to develop a Council of Women. In partnership with UNESCO and the European Union, training courses were carried out to learn how to use the media to counter gender stereotypes and to effectively reduce the rate of early and forced marriages. Since 2010, the Ministry of Education has been providing trainings and informational materials related to early marriage and reproductive rights to teachers and students.

Across the globe, in Uganda, legislation alone has also proven ineffective. A new government strategy has recently adopted a similar approach to that being employed in Azerbaijan. After seeing minimal progress in the last 30 years, the government has decided more action needs to be taken. Forty percent of Ugandan girls are married before age 18, a rate three percent higher than the average in Eastern and Southern Africa, according to a 2014 UNICEF report. Moreover, 67 percent of women aged 24 to 29 with no education, and 58 percent of the same age group with primary education were found to have been married by age 18, as compared to only 14 percent of women with secondary education or higher. A report by the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) published in July cited gender discrimination, traditional practices, and weak laws as the major causes of child marriage in the country.4 Consequently, the new governmental strategy aims to reinvigorate the stagnated progress and reduce the number of early marriages.5

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The Commonwealth
A new government initiative in Uganda is addressing early marriages in part by focusing on girls’ education, with programs aimed at increasing attendance and generating educational materials.

The movement, the first of its kind in the African country, aims to address the issues brought up in the FAWE report. Like the Azerbaijani project, the strategy will focus on issues such as girls’ education, with an additional focus on rehabilitating children, implementing programs that increase girls’ educational attendance, as well as offering programs that combat the traditional thinking and cultural mores that perpetuates early marriages.

The child marriage prevention organization Girls not Brides’ theory of change affirms that “education is one of the most powerful tools to delay the age at which girls marry as school attendance helps shift norms around child marriage.”6 Education and a supportive female community offer girls a strong sense of self and independence that better allows them to fight early marriages.