Dilrabo says she agreed to get married at the age of 16 to escape the dire life she faced after her father died and mother remarried, leaving her at a state boarding school for underprivileged children.
«My marriage only lasted two years…during which I faced abuse at the hands of my husband. Now, my young son and I have nowhere to live,» said the 23-year-old Dushanbe resident, who requested that her family name not be published.
Dilrabo says her life «may have been different» if she hadn’t ended her studies after the seventh grade and gotten married.
«I could be working now, earning a living,» Dilrabo told RFE/RL. «Instead, I am left to deal with this hardship.»
Dilrabo didn’t say whether her marriage — and the subsequent divorce — were officially registered or if she just had an Islamic marriage, or «nikah.»
In 2010, the Muslim-majority Central Asian country raised the minimum age for marriage from 17 to 18. Authorities said the move was to protect women’s rights and ensure their well-being.
The government also warned religious figures not to conduct a «nikah» to anyone below 18.
Tajiks, however, can still marry at 17 with a court’s permission. Official statistics show that underage marriages with court permission have rising steadily in Tajikistan in recent years.
More than 4,000 people married at the age of 17 with a court’s approval in Tajikistan in 2022, according to Tajik human rights ombudsman Suhaili Qodiri.
The number marks a significant rise from 2018 when registry offices recorded some 2,500 underage marriages.
«These figures are far too high,» Qodiri said. «Marriage should not be allowed before the age of 18. We need to eventually amend the law.»
The law doesn’t say under what circumstances courts can grant the right to marry at 17. The ombudsman says such ambiguity in the family code has paved the way for many to legally marry one year earlier.
Women’s rights activists claim that some Tajik parents take advantage of the loophole in the law to push their daughters into marriage.
The majority of those who married at 17 years are women, as most families in the conservative society prefer to have their daughters marry early.
In one opinion poll in Tajikistan taken in 2021, 53 percent of 1,500 heads of households surveyed said the best age for women to get married is 19-20 and 24 for men.
Asked why men marry later than women, most respondents said they believe men must get a university education before being wed.
Experts and women’s rights groups say women who marry early often end up with mental and physical problems.
They say 17-year-old girls are not ready to start a married life in which they must care for their husband, children, and do the household chores at their in-laws’ home as Tajik tradition dictates. It is also not uncommon in Tajik families for in-laws to be deeply involved in a son’s marriage.
«A woman once sought advice from our organization about marrying off her 17-year-old daughter. I explained to her that her daughter is still a child and is not ready for marriage — that it will not work,» said Shohsanam Qaraboeva of the women’s rights group Ghamkhori.
The woman nonetheless decided to go ahead with the wedding, Qaraboeva said. But the marriage ended in divorce 18 months later and the teenage bride is now a single mother at 19 years of age, Qaraboeva said.
«The woman came back to our office to say, ‘You were right,'» Qaraboeva said. «The young bride’s in-laws complained that she was not ‘ready for married life’ and that she ‘wouldn’t even wake up early [to do housework],’ for example.»
Although court permission to marry at 17 must be based on a request by the potential bride or groom, it is widely believed such applications are often submitted under pressure from their families.
Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by Sarvinozi Ruhullo, Shahloi Abdulloh, and Barot Yusufi of RFE/RL’s Tajik Service