PANKISI, DFWatch–About a month ago, a 13 year old girl was married to a 23 year old man in Pankisi Gorge with approval from the girl’s parents. This has caused concern in the Council of Women and the Council of Elders, two mediation bodies which play an important role in the everyday life of the locals.
There are up to ten thousand people living in Pankisi Gorge in the north east of Georgia, bordering the Chechen Republic of Russia. Most locals are ethnic Kists, a subgroup of Chechens, while others are refugees from the wars in Chechnya.
While almost everyone in Pankisi are adherents of Islam, some follow a traditional strain, while others, mostly youth, are called Wahhabis, though prefer not to be called that.
There are two mosques, one is big and red and used by the youth, while the old and smaller one is used by traditional Muslims, mostly elderly. There is no conflict between them, but they prefer being separate.
When walking through the narrow streets of the villages, you will notice women and girls covering their heads, elderly men sitting and chatting somewhere near a table, while young boys are busy helping to refurbish a mosque or doing other chores.
The Council of Elders is a traditional informal body in the gorge which is involved in solving local issues. They mostly deal with conflicts between families such as murder cases, while the Council of Women is a new creation in the gorge, set up in 2011. It was created to let women solve women’s issues, such as early marriages, and domestic violence.
While visiting the Council of Women, its member told us a story of 13 year old girl from the village Koreti who married a 23 year old man in Jokolo, and they were concerned about this.
Iza Bekauri, one of the council members, says it rarely happens that parents force their children to marry, but it is alarming that they agree to their children who want to marry.
“I also have a granddaughter who is 13 years old and I would kill myself if she would get married today,” she tells us.
The other women in the council say that both families are very poor. The young man is not working, while the girl is ‘continuing to play ball with the kids in the yard.’ They assume that the new family might soon fall apart, which is not a rare thing to happen in Pankisi.
The women explain that it is not common for 13-year-old girls to get married, but it happens quite often that they marry when they are 15 or 16. Usually they divorce and remarry several times, and in recent years girls are more prone to getting a divorce regardless of whether they have children or not.
Council members also mention that there is a kind of rule in Pankisi that the family of the man pays 220 laris (about USD 110) to the family of the girl ‘formally.’
“It is a shame, very strict measures need to be taken, or they must be fined.”
Guliko Khangoshvili, also from the council, thinks that the family of the 13 year old girl needs to be punished to set at example so that other families don’t dare let their 13 year olds get married.
Fatima, who is in tenth grade at the local school of Duisi, tells us her classmate got married when she was 15 last year. She quit school. A year later she got back to her parents with her newly born child after her husband died fighting for Islamic State in Syria.
The Council of Women plans to intensify its work with mothers to assure them it is not right for their children to get married early, but they also think it is important that the Council of Elders gets involved. Even though Georgian legislation prohibits underage marriage, no-one is paying attention to it in the gorge and no-one is going to court.
The women in the council also think that the heads of each extended family clan should meet with representatives from both councils and come up with measures to tackle the problem.
We also visited the school in Duisi and met the principal, who declined to answer many of our questions, but said that these days, if children quit school it is mostly because they move, and early marriages are becoming rare. She said that there are 23 pupils now in 12th grade and the majority of them are girls, who study better than boys.
When we asked about the recent case of marriage in Jokolo, members of the Council of Elders said they haven’t heard about it, but think it is quite bad.
Soltsa Kavtarashvili, who is head of the council, told us that age of 13 and even 16 is too little for a girl to marry and start household tasks.
Zaur Gumashvili, head of the council board, believes that the solution is to change the ‘people’s law’ and if there are violations there will be held a people’s court as usual and the court of mediators will decide what to do in such cases.
Kavtarashvili says that in some cases it depends on the human body as well, as some become mature in early years, however 13 years is still quite early. Khaso Khangoshvili agrees with him, but also remembers an example of one of the Georgian kings in the Middle Ages whose wife was 13 year old when she married the king.
Apalon Gaurgashvili from the council believes it is the fault of recent TV shows aired on television.
“It is important to pay attention to upbringing of youth. They must learn which age is best to get married and what are the bad sides of marrying very early,” he said. “Also, it is the fault of your democracy. We gave everyone rights for everything and now look what they are doing. See – democracy has its bad sides as well.”
Early marriages in Georgia
In 2014, UNFPA published an overview of child marriages in Georgia. In general, child marriage is a gendered phenomenon, as there are more girls than boys in child marriages around the world.
According to UNFPA, up to 17 percent of all women in Georgia are married by the time they are 18. Georgia has one of the highest underage marriage rates in Europe, together with Moldova (19 percent) and Turkey (14 percent). However, notes UNFPA, this is not the full picture, as marriages under the age of 16 are not officially registered. Underage marriage is more common in Muslim communities in Adjara and Kvemo Kartli, but happen not only there.
The Civil Code of Georgia states that the minimum legal age for marriage is 18. It allows exceptions, when one or both of the spouses can be 16. The Criminal Code stipulates that cohabitation with a child younger than 16 years old, is a crime punishable by up to three years in prison.