CoE Know-How on Child (and Early) Marriages: Education, Education, Education!


When foreign media publishes something about Georgia, it’s either about the political situation – good forbid Georgia swaying from the precarious path of Europeanization! - or, if we’re lucky, about how great a tourist destination our country is. Social aspects of life rarely, if ever, get covered, so when the Washington Post published a sizable photo reportage about child brides (and early marriages in general), many an eyebrow was raised. Especially when, contrary to what one might have expected, it wasn’t just the Muslim ethnic minorities that were mentioned. Teenage girls from Imereti and Adjara in Western Georgia were presented as just as likely to create families at the tender ages of 16-18 as their Muslim counterparts in Gardabani or Lagodekhi.

“The United Nations Population Fund has estimated that at least 17 percent of girls [in Georgia] get married before the age of 18. There are many reasons that these marriages still take place, including long-standing tradition, the will of the girl’s parents and even kidnapping by a suitor,” the article reads. Among the other reasons it doesn’t mention is the actual willingness of some couples to create a family and society’s encouraging attitude towards it, or how early marriages are given another layer of legitimacy by the Church, with ordained priests in Georgia blessing such marriages on daily basis.

So, what’s the country to do? Georgia has complied with European standards and recently voided a legal norm that allowed such marriages under “special circumstances” with the consent of parents and a court. Additionally, it has signed and is to ratify the Istanbul Convention,  a massive document penned by the Council of Europe that aims at preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. It was these issues that Panorama TV Show and GEORGIA TODAY discussed with Ms. Bridget O’Loughlin, head of the Violence against Women Division at the Council of Europe.

The general audience in Georgia needs some European know-how, as these beliefs are deeply rooted in society, especially in Muslim ethnic minorities

I understand that. It’s a problem not only in Georgia, of course. But the Istanbul Convention prevents forced marriages, and, in particular, refers to child marriages. Because these are young people who often marry under pressure from families, parents or from their communities. They are not necessarily brought to the altar with a gun to their heads, but nevertheless they feel a certain amount of pressure. And these are children. And we must not forget that marriage is not just a contract, it’s actually a legal change of status. And it also means that the people involved, the girls and boys getting married, will likely drop out of school. This then becomes a problem because subsequently they are deprived of economic independence. Thus, the whole cycle of early marriage and then being stuck in that situation is perpetuated from one generation to another. This is one of the reasons why the drafters of the Istanbul Convention said that the issue of forced marriage was very important but also, as I said, child marriage. In the same way that a child cannot be considered able to give consent to sexual activity, one should question very much whether the child is able to freely give his/her consent to marriage.

What can be done to discourage people from following what they believe is a respected tradition, while avoiding conflict?

This is obviously a very difficult and sensitive issue. The Istanbul Convention works on the basis of what we call the “four pillars” – prevention, protection, prosecution and coordinated policies. And in this area the most important work really to be done is prevention and awareness-raising: raising awareness among these communities of the damage they could do to children who are involved and of the fact that it would be more worthwhile for the communities, and for the wellbeing of their children, that said children be well developed and fully educated. I think we have to educate the whole community. It comes down to education, education, education - the education of children and the education of parents and their families.

Educating parents might be an issue. What if they don’t want that education, being so stuck in their deep traditions?

That’s where awareness campaigning, publicity, media, can get message out there that European standards are such that early and forced marriages are really not acceptable. And indeed, according to the Istanbul Convention, forced marriage is a crime. It’s clearly wrong to make somebody go through changes of civil status, become husband or wife, when they do not want to do so. Parents have to realize that.

Imagine two 17 year olds. Both their parents and society welcome their marriage. They also want to live together and be married. Is it something we need to overcome?

I don’t think it should necessarily be prohibited if the two people involved are truly willing and truly ready to be married. And the way to deal with that in a number of countries where children are underage and are willing to be married is to get the consent to that marriage of a judge who can take the facts into consideration. You know there are some 17 year olds that are very mature and there are some 17 year olds who are immature and cannot make such a decision.

What role can the Church play? The majority of early and child marriages are blessed by church members. Time for a change?

Well, I think so, yes. But let’s not forget that many churches are very patriarchal and mostly run by men in power who are happy to see these practices continue. There is a gender factor in all these questions.

What do you mean by 'gender factor'?

What I'm saying is that the gender element in violence against women is not a question of violence against a certain group of people: it’s violence against women because they are women. It’s a form of discrimination against women; it’s a violation of their human rights and this is the founding principle of the entire Istanbul Convention. And, therefore, included in that is forced marriage. It is not necessarily saying that two people getting married at the age of 17 is forced marriage, and in most countries when such is requested it is not forbidden, but it is recognized that a third party is needed who can judge whether or not consent has been freely given. And as regards the Church, the only thing I can suggest is still more education and awareness raising. It's a question of talking to people, it’s a question of dialogue, of explaining why this might not be a good idea; it's a question of remembering that it effects the economic empowerment of both boys and girls. If a couple gets married at 17 and immediately starts having a family, it reduces their possibilities of earning a living. I think it’s very clear that early marriage can be a problem in a number of cases.


INTERVIEW By Vazha Tavberidze

02 May 2017 18:19