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Tajikistan: Early Engagements Warp Girls’ Lives

In some districts of Tajikistan, the old traditions of early engagements are still alive. 12-13 years old girls are betrothed and, most often, they do not even know the groom. Nevertheless, he decides whether a girl can receive further education or even finish the school.

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Makhina Akramzoda studies in the 11th grade of a Surkh village school, in northern Tajik Isfara district, which borders Kyrgyzstan. She has been engaged for 5 years now, and her future spouse is 22.
“We have never met; my fiancé was chosen by parents. I want to become a doctor and my fiancé approves of my decision,” says the girl.
She is one of the few who knows her future husband, although they have never talked to each other.
I don’t know which one of them is my fiancé. I know that I am engaged, but I don’t know with whom.
The early engagement of girls is one of the peculiarities of Surkh village. Residents of this region of the country are considered as the most religious. 16 431 people live here, 8697 of which are women.
As early as at 12-13 years old, but sometimes right from the birth date, parents engage their daughters with acquaintances or distant relatives’ sons. This tradition is called “Gakhvorabakhsh”, which in Tajik means “commitment from the cradle”. Fellow villagers mock families that do not do this.
Girls usually agree with the parents’ choice, still not knowing who is chosen to be their husband.
“When I go home from school, several teenagers walk behind me. I do not know which one of them is my fiancé. I know that I am engaged, but I don’t know with whom,” Mavzuna (the name has been changed), eleventh grader, says. She was engaged when she studied in the 8th grade, and the only thing she knows about her future husband is that they are not relatives.

Marriage First?

The majority of schoolgirls of school No. 29 of Surkh Jamoat said that they were already engaged. Girls are brought up from childhood with idea that the main purpose of their lives is successful marriage and good caring of husband and children.
One of the eleventh-graders says she agrees with parents’ choice and if the future husband does not allow her to continue her studies, she is ready to raise their children.
The school administration told that even ten years ago it was only boys who received a full secondary education. Now, according to officials, all girls also finish school due to the strict control by the Tajik authorities.
In 2011, the country adopted a law “On Parents’ Responsibility for Children’s Upbringing and Education”. According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, in 2017, almost 16 thousand protocols were drawn up against parents who violated the law. They were fined 1.3 million somoni in total ($138 thousand). In 2016, local media reported that 474 criminal cases were initiated against careless parents.

Previously, “Gakhvorabakhsh” tradition was typical for the whole Tajikistan, but now this tradition is almost forgotten. Early engagement occurs only in certain communities, like Surkh village. Here, the girls very rarely enroll in universities.

“Most of the boys in our village do not want their future wives to go to universities. They will put obstacles and prohibitions for girls. But every girl has the right to choose,” says Mohchehra Karimzoda.
The girl studies in the 10th grade and wants to enroll in university journalism department after graduation. She is not engaged with anyone and stands against the custom of early engagements, because it violates girls’ rights.
“I think that many problems arise when you create a family with a stranger. Husbands give orders to the girls, they say: do not do this, do not go there… There are many contradictions and this misunderstanding can lead to the family breakdown,” said Karimzoda.

Divorces and Miscarriages

Even if the groom’s side agrees with bride continuing her studies, sometimes the girls themselves refuse to study in university, because all their thoughts are busy with buying the necessary things for the wedding and the upcoming marriage, says Muazzam Nazirova, head of the Women’s Committee of the Surkh village.

Muazzam Nazirova. Photo: CABAR.asia

According to her, 70% of the village girls married early in the past, but now this figure is reduced to 30%, thanks to their activism.
“The girl is engaged without being asked for consent, and then it leads to problems. Early marriages often lead to the birth of unhealthy children or miscarriages. Since girls are not ready for childbirth, newborns often die,” Nazirova says.
According to Nazirova, people now see that after the early engagements, many young families brake up, and the girls are left alone with newborns. Therefore, people themselves began to abandon this custom.
However, 200 out of 661 school students are already engaged. However, as Nazirova tells, after the explanatory work for the six months of this year, 80 girls refused engagement and created families of their choice with their loved ones:

Previously, the rejection of the engagement was considered a sin, but now the girls know their rights and make their choice without fearing their parents. Our girls finish school with honors, but their parents engage them. There are men who marry educated girls; they are also intelligent. At the same time, there are parents who want to marry their children quickly to go to Hajj.

No Choice

“Earlier, the engagements were carried out with girls in 4th and 5th grades. Now, the age has increased just to the 9th grade. The future husband orders the girl to tie a bigger kerchief, not to participate in school events, not to go to weddings,” says Munira Mukhiddinova, a teacher from a school in a district center – Isfara.

Munira Mukhiddinova. Photo: CABAR.asia

Despite all the propaganda and explanatory work against the tradition of early engagement, the problem is still relevant. In 2011, the age for marriage increased from 17 to 18 years old in Tajikistan. Now, the groom’s side is waiting for the girl to reach the required age, and then hold the wedding immediately.
There were cases when the bride turned 18 years old before the final exams and the wedding was held as soon as the day after her birthday. The groom’s side did not even allow the girl to take exams, Mukhiddinova said.
Most engaged girls say they agree with the parents’ decision and emphasize that they will have no choice, even if the future husband forbids them to continue their studies.

“I can’t break the parents’ word. If so, everyone will laugh at us then.” Makhina Akramzoda
Makhina, who is soon to marry her fiancé chosen by her parents, does not even admit the idea of going against the family. When answering the question of what will happen if she falls in love with another man, she firmly says that she “will marry the man chosen by her parents.”
“I can’t break the parents’ word. If so, everyone will laugh at us then,” says the girl.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.