GEORGIA, TBILISI, December 7, 2020 – Georgia has one of the highest rates of child marriage in Eastern Europe, but the problem is being widely overlooked. Although Georgian legislation states that marriage is prohibited under the age of 18 under any circumstance, many girls are married off as minors – sometimes against their will. The practice, together with other factors, arises out of gender inequality.
A 2018 report by UNICEF found that 14% of girls in the country aged 20 to 24 are married before their 18th birthday. However, the exact scale of the problem is hard to measure because families circumvent the law by not officially registering unions. Engagement parties and wedding celebrations are sometimes held, and once a couple lives together, they are referred to as husband and wife and are perceived by their community as culturally and religiously married.
Girls are also being subjected to forced marriages, including bride kidnapping, with Georgia’s Ministry of Interior registering 34 cases of bride kidnapping between January and September 2020.
Rooted in patriarchal values and gender inequality, child and forced marriage are serious human rights violations which increases the risk of other abuses including domestic and sexual violence, and early and unwanted pregnancy. It also hinders girls from accessing education.
Discussing these issues in public is still considered taboo in Georgia, where victim-blaming is widespread, and this makes it difficult for survivors to seek help or speak out about their experiences.
As a consequence, there is a lack of public understanding about how child marriage is harmful and the problem is not being treated as a priority by the government or law enforcement officials.
To increase awareness about the challenges and suffering survivors face, international women’s rights organization Equality Now has teamed up with human rights expert Goga Khatiashvili to release “Courage: Survivors of child marriage share their stories”, which features the stories of seven women who have escaped child and forced marriages.
Their accounts shine a much-needed spotlight on the reality behind the statistics. What makes their stories exceptional is that these young women received assistance from individuals who enabled them to escape their abusers and find safety.
One such individual is Goga Khatiashvili, who played an instrumental role in aiding women and girls fleeing abusive situations when he worked at the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia. Goga was the former Head of the Human Rights Protection Unit and helped uncover and compile the stories that are now being bravely shared by the women featured in this new publication.
Goga explains: “By sharing these stories, I want to reach out to girls across Georgia who might be facing child marriage to let them know they are not alone and that they have rights. Child marriage is against the law, and there are people with a responsibility to protect them.”
Although there is a concentration of child and forced marriage within particular ethnic communities, child marriage occurs in all parts of Georgia. Rural areas are more affected, but the urban areas are not immune, with 8% of identified cases located there. And whilst girls are married as minors, grooms are almost always older and of legal age.
The prosecution of statutory rape in relation to child marriage cases is complicated because survivors, mostly based on the pressure from society and their individual circumstances, often don’t perceive themselves as victims and don’t want perpetrators to be held to account. They may be pregnant or already mothers, and financially dependent on their partner.
The experiences articulated by survivors demonstrate the repeated and interconnected patterns of abuse associated with early and forced marriage, including sexual and domestic violence, loss of education, acute dependency, and severely limited options. They also make clear the types of interventions urgently needed in Georgia to end child and forced marriage. These include:
- target the root causes of child and forced marriage through strengthening educational, health care, social and other support services and improving coordination among these bodies;
- train teachers, medical professionals, and social workers to recognize, address and report any discrimination or abuse against girls;
- improve legal frameworks and develop strong implementation mechanisms to protect women and girls from abuse – including for early and forced marriage, sexual violence, domestic violence (including physical, sexual, psychological, and economic violence and neglect);
- train law enforcement, judiciary, and lawyers to take survivors seriously and work sensitively with them to get justice;
- ensure there are prevention and support systems in place, including properly funded shelters, to assist women and children survivors of sexual and domestic abuse;
- educate children and communities about women’s rights and equality for all people.
Tamar Dekanosidze, Equality Now’s Eurasia consultant based in Tbilisi, states: “The Georgian government should target the root causes of child marriage and raise awareness that child marriage is a serious human rights violation. This will help to create an environment in which the law can be applied more successfully. It will also function as a deterrent for potential perpetrators of crimes related to child marriage because people are less likely to act if they know there are legal consequences.
“This is not about goodwill. It is a legal obligation and Georgia is bound by international law to combat harmful practices such as child and forced marriage.”