“She’s either buried or married.” What we know about early and forced marriages in the North Caucasus
“She’s either buried or married.” What we know about early and forced marriages in the North Caucasus
11 June 2024, 17:08

Иллюстрация: Мария Толстова / Медиазона

Being married to a stranger at fourteen or fifteen, being raped, beaten and humiliated by her husband and his relatives, and giving birth to her first child a year later — this is the life of girls and young women who are victims of early and forced marriages in the North Caucasus. They can be kidnapped or forced into marriage by their own parents who fear for the “honour” of the family. Mediazona recounts a report by the human rights project AD REM on this practice, which is hardly researched in Russia.

In 2009, 18-year-old Zaira Bopkhoeva from Ingushetia was abducted by a local resident named Khalid. Two years earlier the girl who was under 16 at the time had already been kidnapped by another man. According to tradition, she was considered “tainted” and therefore forced to marry the perpetrator, but the marriage did not work out and Zaira returned home.

The second time, Bopkhoeva’s mother would not leave her daughter with her abductor and demanded that Khalid let her go. But Zaira’s return after a night spent in the man’s house angered her relatives on her deceased father’s side. Seven male relatives took the girl to the forest, beat her, and then forced her to marry Khalid.

Her mother-in-law was strongly against Zaira. She sent her son to a distant village and kept the girl locked in one of her rooms almost all the time. At the same time, Zaira’s health began to worsen: occasionally contacting her mother, she complained of dizziness, nausea, numbness in her lower jaw and difficulty breathing.

Soon the girl who had been healthy before her marriage started having seizures and in February 2010 she was hospitalised. At the hospital, Zaira was diagnosed with poisoning from an unknown drug. According to doctors, oxygen was not supplied to the brain for a long time, and Bopkhoeva fell into a coma. In this condition, the girl was returned to her mother’s home.

Zaira Bopkhoeva is another victim of one of the widespread practices of child and forced marriages in the North Caucasus, particularly in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan. In 2018, the ECHR awarded her mother 20,000 euros in compensation because the Russian authorities failed to investigate the circumstances of the incident.

The AD REM project of lawyers and human rights defenders has published a report: the first Russian study of this problem, within the framework of which the authors conducted interviews with female residents of these republics who suffered from forced or early marriages, as well as with local experts and specialists — representatives of government and non-profit organisations, lawyers, advocates and psychologists. A total of 31 women from 23 to 42 years old and 15 experts were interviewed.

The researchers were unable to interview underage girls who were victims of early marriages because traditionally they are more strictly controlled and it is virtually impossible to obtain permission for interviews from relatives, which is motivated by “disagreement with interference in the internal affairs of the family and explained by fear of spreading information about what happened.”

Kidnapping, poverty, and patriarchal traditions. Reasons for early and forced marriages

Child and forced marriages from the point of view of international law are regarded as one of the modern forms of slavery, which primarily affects women. Russia still has not taken all mandatory measures noted in the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

For example, Russia’s Criminal Code narrowly defines rape and sexual offences as coercion with the use or threat of violence or taking advantage of the “helpless state of the victim", while marital rape is not criminalised at all. According to a note to Article 134 of the Criminal Code, an adult accused of “sexual intercourse” with a child under the age of 16 may escape punishment “if it is established that this person and the offence committed by him have ceased to be socially dangerous in connection with his marriage to the victim(s).” Russia also lacks a system of protection for victims of violence, as well as shelters and support services for victims to turn to.

There are no up-to-date statistics on abductions of girls, but the authors of the report cite the following figures: between 1999 and 2007, over 650 reports of abductions for the purpose of forced marriage were registered in the North Caucasus and only 25 per cent of the cases were prosecuted. In most cases, victims of abductions are afraid to report them openly for fear of public condemnation and the law enforcement agencies, for their part, ignore such reports, even if they are received.

Researchers note that young people in the North Caucasus, on the one hand, no longer seek to “blindly follow established traditions’’, but on the other hand, they are becoming more religious, which leads to the traditionalisation of gender roles. In this regard, there is a trend towards the younger maternity, which indirectly points to the growing number of early marriages: it is not against Sharia law for minors to marry.

This practice affects girls and boys differently. Statistics are extremely limited, but even from them we can say that girls marry before adulthood ten times more often than boys. In 2021, according to official figures, 4,453 women married before the age of 18 in Russia. However, these figures do not reflect the real number, as often such marriages may not be registered in registries, being limited to religious rites.

The concepts of “child marriage” and “forced marriage” — that is, without the consent of one or both partners, using physical or psychological violence — are closely linked and often include the abduction of the young woman. This is another tradition that is often still violent.

Islamic figures now regard abduction as an inadmissible form of marriage; it is actually forbidden under the Sharia. However, even in this case, girls can still be regarded “as an object not endowed with the right of independent choice". Thus, in 2007, the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Dagestan decided that in local mosques, the Sharia marriage nikah in case of abduction will not be concluded without the consent of the bride’s parents.

The reason for early or forced marriage can also be the poverty of a girl’s family, especially if it has many children: parents or other relatives simply want to get rid of an extra mouthful. One of the women interviewed told the researchers that her family had received a large kalym for her, i.e. in such cases it is actually a bride sale. The girls and young women themselves may not even resist because they are made responsible for the well-being of their family.

In Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, patriarchal attitudes are strong, which means that women’s lives are under constant strict control, especially in the sexual sphere. A woman’s “immoral” behaviour, according to society, leads to the “dishonouring” of the whole family and is therefore severely punished. The family tries to get a girl married as soon as possible, fearing that she may “defame” her family by socialising with men.

Hence the practice of “honour” killings, which still occurs in these republics. In this connection, a kidnapped girl is almost never returned by her relatives, as she is considered to be “unclean.” Moreover, in the case of kidnapping, the victim herself is still blamed. This is often the case with rape victims, who are either killed or married off to their rapist.

“When they brought me into the hospital, my feet were covered in blood. Only the doctor came in and saw, she immediately said: ‘She was raped.’ I didn’t even say anything, her tears were flowing...” the report quotes the story of a girl from Ingushetia who was abducted at the age of 17. “I went and told everything. I wrote a statement. Then Zaur’s relatives became alarmed. My relatives beat me up, but they did nothing to him... Then the older men started coming to ask me to marry Zaur. My father was against it, but my male relatives said: ‘She should either go to the grave or get married. She is no longer a girl.’ They also blamed me. I was given away for him, and I didn’t even know that I was married off... No one even asked me if I wanted to marry him or not.”

Svetlana Anokhina, a journalist and founder of the Marem Human Rights Project, which helps abused women in the North Caucasus, said that last year they received 33 appeals from girls who were about to be forcibly married off. In the first half of 2024, they have already received 21 such appeals.

“This is threat to all girls who live with their parents. It’s just that sometimes we don’t really notice it, because there is no direct threat that matchmakers are about to come,” stresses the human rights activist. “But it should be understood that when we talk about forced marriage, it does not mean that the parents have a knife to the throat — the whole system of upbringing of a girl assumes that one day she will be shown a man whose wife she will become.”

The main reason for this, Anokhina explains, is the belief of traditional society that a woman is born only to maintain her innocence, to marry, to be a good wife and daughter-in-law, and to bear children. That is why they try to marry her off quickly, so that she does not ‘disgrace’ the family, so that her name does not appear in some gossip — all this spoils her ‘market value’. Islamic figures, the journalist notes, also mostly say that the girl should be raised strictly and taken out of school early so that she does not come into contact with boys there.

“Why should she sit at home then, she should be married off quickly,” Anokhina explains. “And if a girl has a soft character, she doesn’t even resist. Sometimes they even say, ‘Well, what do you mean forced? I didn’t want to, but my parents said: “Come out, get married.” So I agreed.’ Many do not even have a thought to protest. For them it’s the norm: to marry a man they don’t know, because everyone around them says it should be like that. What they are experiencing, we cannot know. We only find out when they run away.”

As a rule, if a girl was raped as a child, it was only discovered when she got married — and then she was killed, a social worker from Ingushetia said in a conversation with researchers.

“There was a case when a grandfather raped his five-year-old granddaughter. The father killed her and they buried her,” she said. “That was years ago now, probably about ten years ago. And he [the grandfather] said such a thing that she sat on his lap. That is, she seduced him by the fact that she, a child of five, was very fond of walking with him and sitting on his lap... He took the child’s attention as seduction.”

Violence in the new family, lack of education, and health problems. Consequences of early and forced marriages

Early marriage also harms girls later in marriage. Often violence continues in the husband’s family, both on his part and on the part of his relatives. It manifests itself in different forms: economic, physical, psychological and sexual.

Girls and young women who marry early usually have to interrupt their education, and rarely can continue it afterwards; sometimes they do not even have a full school education. In the husband’s family, they are responsible for taking care of the household, serving his relatives, giving birth to and bringing up children.

“If a girl manages to keep her job or her studies, it’s a great deal of luck. Sometimes Chechen, Dagestani and Ingush women say to us: ‘What are you talking about? I study and work, I have my own car and my own business,’” says Svetlana Anokhina. “And then I ask one question: ‘If one day your husband or parents say to you: “That’s it, it’s over”, [you can’t do it anymore] what will happen?’ And when they shut up, it becomes clear that these are privileges and freedoms that do not belong to them, they are granted to them and can be taken away at any time.”

Even if an early-married girl manages to get a job, it will almost certainly be unofficial and rather low-paid. Even so, the money she earns is usually managed by her husband or his family.

Almost all women interviewed for the study spoke about humiliation and pressure from their spouse, mother-in-law or other relatives. They are burdened with all the housework, are constantly controlled, and are actually deprived of freedom, not allowing them to see their parents. Almost half of the respondents (14 out of 31) spoke about physical violence on the part of their husbands: they are slapped, kicked, objects thrown at them, pushed, strangled and so on.

Four of the women interviewed directly admitted that their husbands raped them; some of the others implied it indirectly, mentioning that they were not interested in sex life and did not want to have intimate contacts with their spouse. Rape of girls who are married early or forced into marriage is common: girls may simply not be ready for sex or may dislike the spouse.

This is confirmed by the stories of the Marem applicants, as cited by Svetlana Anokhina, the founder of the human rights project.

  • A girl from Chechnya was married off at the insistence of her mother, who said that if she refused, she would be beaten. While she was married, her husband complained to his parents that she was cold towards him, but she simply disliked him. The girl ran away. Only then was she allowed to get a divorce.
  • A girl from Dagestan was married off at the age of 15. Her husband beat her so badly that she lost her child. She was allowed to get a divorce, but in the end she was locked up in her parents’ house, beaten and not even allowed to get a passport. The girl had a choice: either stay at home as a free maid or remarry. She chose the other way - and escaped with the help of Marem.
  • Another Chechen woman was married off early. She gave birth to two children and divorced a few years later - her ex-husband did not give her children back and her father also forbade her to take them. She has no support at home, on the contrary, she is beaten and forced to remarry. Her family demands that she just forgets about her children and starts living from scratch.
  • The family of another Dagestani girl moved from the republic to Moscow. There, the girl ran away from her brothers and mother. They are looking for her and threaten to take her back to Dagestan, lock her up at home and marry her off.
  • Another applicant from Chechnya was married off at the age of 16 to a man much older than her, who raped her during the marriage. She fled but then returned because of her parents’ illness, she was remarried. “But we took her away,” says Anokhina.

    Sometimes minors also turn to Marem, but human rights defenders can only take up a case if a girl is severely beaten and this is recorded, or in cases of sexualised violence within the family. Then they try to involve lawyers, write to the children’s ombudsman, and demand that the girl be taken to a rehabilitation centre. “We have had such cases. They, however, did not result in anything,” states Anokhina. At the same time, the journalist notes that she does not consider early marriage by definition forced, because there are cases when girls want to get married quickly, because for them it is a release from family pressure.

    But early marriage often has a negative impact on girls’ health, especially reproductive health. Pregnancy and childbirth during adolescence can harm both girls and newborns. Teenage mothers are twice as likely to die in childbirth as women who have reached adulthood, the report found. Half of the North Caucasian women interviewed for the study (15 out of 31) said they had had problems during or after pregnancy.

    In addition, it is not uncommon for women to have no access to contraceptive methods or even to be unaware of them, and to have no choice about the number of children and spacing of pregnancies.

Crisis centres, education and criminal liability for perpetrators. Overcoming the practice of early and forced marriage

In general, girls and young women who have been forcibly married do not go anywhere, believing that if they have not been helped by their own family, they can hardly count on the support of strangers. The authorities, both regional and federal, do little to protect victims of violence.

For example, in Chechnya and then Ingushetia, fines were introduced for kidnapping for marriage, but this did not eradicate the problem: some of the women interviewed for this study were kidnapped after the ban had been lifted. In addition, because of the notorious fear for the “honour” of the family, a girl’s relatives may marry her off to her abductor anyway.

In the beginning, at least they made you pay, and if someone didn’t have the opportunity to pay, it was a deterrent,” said an expert from Ingushetia who spoke to the researchers. - Although it is a small sum, 200,000 roubles. As a rule, the religious representatives who are supposed to demand compliance with this law say: ’Oh, he’s poor, he won’t be able to pay. Let’s not touch him.

The authors highlighted a number of recommendations that could help overcome the practice of early and forced marriage.

  • Criminal liability for forcing minors to marry and compulsory state registration of all marriages.
  • Free legal aid, redress and rehabilitation for victims of such marriages.
  • A system of multi-disciplinary crisis centres, shelters, crisis flats where free emergency assistance can be provided to victims, especially in remote and rural areas.
  • Advocacy to overcome customs that are harmful to girls’ development and health.
  • Improving the literacy of underage girls themselves to be able to defend their rights, with a particular focus on protection from violence.
  • Train law enforcement and court officials to more effectively enforce laws already in place to protect girls from abduction and forced marriage.

Human rights activist Svetlana Anokhina emphasises that the fight against violence against women should not start with the problem of forced marriages. “It is necessary to first realise, including at the legislative level, that a woman is a person. But as we see from the cases of numerous escapes of girls, the state itself is not on the side of the runaway girl, but on the side of those who persecute her,” she says. - The law enforcers consider the girl to be the property of her family. If a runaway can be forcibly seized and returned, how can you fight the fact that she is being forcibly married off?

The human rights activist emphasises that this is not a problem of the North Caucasus alone, but “systemic coordinated work of all law enforcement agencies throughout the country". According to her, many times they have heard from law enforcers that they have an unspoken order: “Do not get involved in Caucasian cases".

"Traditional values: if you are a girl, you are not a human being. They can put you in jail, they can marry you off by force, but they can’t let you go free if you run away, and the police won’t protect you,” Anokhina said.

Authors of the report: Yulia Antonova, Inna Hayrapetyan, Kulsam Magomadova. Full version of the study on the AD REM website (in Russian).

Editor: Maria Klimova

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