Inside the Lives of Georgia’s Child Brides

With girls marrying as young as 12, Georgia has one of the highest rates of child marriage in Europe.

No one really knows for sure how many underage girls are getting married in the country of Georgia.

The United Nations Population Fund has records showing that at least 17 percent of girls in Georgia are married before they’re 18 years old—the nation’s legal age for marriage. But what makes it hard to track is that families sometimes circumvent the law, by holding off on registering the marriage for several years. They hold weddings in rural mosques or churches and consider the couple culturally and religiously married.

Photojournalist Daro Sulakauri grew up in Georgia and remembers one of her classmates getting married when they were both only 12. “I had this disturbed feeling in a way,” she remembers. “I felt like something was wrong. But I didn't understand what it was.”

A bride’s classmates visit her before the wedding to admire her dress.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DARO SULAKAURI

At a salon in the village, a bride gets ready for her wedding ceremony.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DARO SULAKAURI

A bride applies makeup at a local salon while preparing for her wedding ceremony.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DARO SULAKAURI

A 17-year-old bride leaves her house for the wedding ceremony. She met the groom one month earlier, the day their engagement was announced.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DARO SULAKAURI

Teenage boys watch from their car as wedding festivities take place.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DARO SULAKAURI

As friends and family members dance around her, a 17-year-old bride cries while holding gifts of cash.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DARO SULAKAURI

The bride and groom step over a dead sheep, which was slaughtered as part of a wedding ritual.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DARO SULAKAURI

A Georgian-Azeri couple, who are Muslim, pose in front of a mosque on their wedding day. They met one month earlier, the day their engagement was announced. She is 17 and he is 22.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DARO SULAKAURI

Those feelings returned to Sulakauri when she began researching women’s issues in Georgia after receiving a grant from the Human Rights House Network. Remembering her classmate, she started asking around about young marriages. Soon after, she received an invitation to a wedding in a small village, and at the end of the celebration, the young bride started to weep.

“It was so hard to tell her feelings,” Sulakauri says. “Was she sad? Was she happy? For me, she was very confused. So that's why I started to realise I really wanted to do a story on this.”


A Georgian family in the Adjara region lives in this house during the summers, a standard practice for farmers in the area. Usually, the houses are more than one hundred years old, and livestock lives on the first floor while the family sleeps on the second.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DARO SULAKAURI


Mari, 15, lives in the Adjara region. Most girls her age drop out of school to get married. Her grandmother believes it’s a tradition meant to be passed down.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DARO SULAKAURI


A family in the Adjara region drives between villages. Sulakauri said she wanted to capture not only weddings ceremonies but also what it’s like to live in these places.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DARO SULAKAURI

Kids go for a swim in Green Lake in the Adjara region.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DARO SULAKAURI

Children stand in front of a village in the Adjara region. Early marriages are very common in this region, with many girls dropping out of school to get married.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DARO SULAKAURI

Sali is 13 years old. While she’s not yet married, her grandmother told Sulakauri that she sees no harm in early marriages.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DARO SULAKAURI

Twins Monika and Laura, living in the Kakheti region, were born when their mother was only 14 years old.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DARO SULAKAURI

Kids swing on a rope on a foggy day. For many children in this region, childhood quickly turns into adulthood due to early marriages.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DARO SULAKAURI

UNICEF calls child marriage “a fundamental violation of human rights,” and Georgia has one of the highest rates of child marriage in Europe. It’s a tradition that goes back centuries and isn’t confined to one region or religion. And while the reasons for the marriages differ from town to town and group to group, there are a few commonalities. The grooms are almost always older, have finished school, and are of legal age. Typically, it’s the groom’s mother who begins the matchmaking process, but Sulakauri has encountered couples who met through friends, in school, or online. And though the girls aren’t necessarily forced into the marriages, cultural pressure is extremely strong.


In the Adjara region, 14-year-old Tamro dances at her sister’s engagement party. While it’s common for girls her age to get married, Tamro says she wants to finish school first.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DARO SULAKAURI

“They kind of go with the flow,” Sulakauri says. “Because their great-great-grandmother did the same thing, and their grandmother and their mother got married at a very young age. So they think that it's the way of life, that that's how it's supposed to be.”

The people in Sulakauri’s photos are Georgian Azeris, members of an ethnic and religious minority. One of the child brides she met, Layla, was 12 when she married and was living with her husband’s family. Her story in particular stuck with Sulakauri, who remembers that in their first conversations, Layla was very open. “She had all these dreams about the future, what she wanted to be, like a stylist,” she says. “She wanted to continue education and had all kinds of things that she still wanted to do.”


Women and girls take a break from engagement festivities in the Adjara region.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DARO SULAKAURI

A year later, Sulakauri reconnected with Layla—and things were different. “She has become a housewife at the age of 13,” she says. “She's not going to go to school, that's for sure. It's kind of over for her in a way.”

And it’s not just dropping out of school that will impact these girls forever. Sex education is virtually nonexistent in Georgia, and Sulakauri says that some girls don’t understand what marriage entails until after the wedding day. A Reproductive Health Survey in 2010 revealed that “some 76.6 [percent] of married women aged 15 to 19 years used no method of modern contraception.” Unsurprisingly, then, many young brides get pregnant soon after the wedding, which can cause all sorts of health complications for their still developing bodies.


The Adjara region is known for its mountainous landscape and, unfortunately, for the many early marriages that take place there.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DARO SULAKAURI

When Sulakauri meets these girls, she can’t help but think of her own childhood. “It was very different,” she says. “I was a kid as long as I could be a kid, you know?” If her work can’t grant that same childhood for the brides she photographs, she’s hopeful it could change the future for others.

“I wanted to show people in my country that this was happening. It can lead to change. Maybe they will start talking about it: ‘Maybe this should not happen. Maybe it's too young.’”

 

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