The Russian media has been teeming with reports this month about a middle-aged Chechen police chief’s plan to marry a girl from a small village in the region.
Nazhud Guchigov, who is known as a close associate of the republic’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, is already married with children. His second proposed bride, Kheda Goylabieva, turned 17 this month. Although Russian law allows neither polygamous marriages nor marriage before 18, Guchigov apparently plans to take this girl as his second wife in an Islamic marriage. Since such a marriage is not recognized under Russian law, the wife is entitled to no legal or property rights. And while Islam and the Adat, Chechen custom law, permit polygamy, both ban forced marriage.
In late April, Guchigov denied to Novaya Gazeta, a leading independent newspaper, that he was planning a wedding and said he did not even know the girl. On May 5, however, Kadyrov said on Chechen television that he had sent a trusted envoy to the girl’s village, who reported that the girl and the family were fine with the wedding and expected it to happen soon.
In recent years, as part of his women’s virtue campaign, Kadyrov has flouted Russian law and openly and repeatedly voiced approval of polygamy and even encouraged Chechen officials to engage in it. Despite repeated promises to eradicate marriages to underaged brides in Chechnya, Kadyrov appears to be making an exception for his trusted police chief.
Child marriage typically ends a girl’s ability to continue her education and exposes her to domestic violence especially when there is a large age gap.
This week, a pro-Kremlin TV channel, ran an “interview” with Kheda. A pale teenager, her head covered with a flowery scarf, she sat staring at her lap and mumbling short answers: “How long have you known him?” – “A year.” – “Have you found it interesting to interact with him?” – “Yes, interesting.”
One can only imagine the pressure Kheda and her family have been under, with the all-powerful district police chief wanting to claim her, and the fearsome head of Chechnya issuing his personal approval. Karydov’s lack of tolerance for dissent is well known, so it’s likely that the girl and her relatives feel they have no choice but to consent. At the end of her “interview,” which comes across as a perverse interrogation, Kheda looks straight into the camera, “Yes, I know he’s married and has children, but it so happens that I will now marry him.”
Will Russian authorities stand by and let it “so happen” that a high-level police official three times her age can take a girl as his bride under at least some form of duress, with the full approval and backing of Chechnya’s Kremlin-appointed governor? For now it seems indeed that the Russian state is doing nothing to stop this and protect the girl, who is being stripped of her key rights under domestic and international law and whose life and opportunities will be irrevocably altered.
Tanya Lokshina is the Russia program director and a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and is based in Moscow. Having joined Human Rights Watch in January 2008, Lokshina authored several reports on egregious abuses in Russia’s turbulent North Caucasus region and co-authored a report on violations of international humanitarian law during the 2008 armed conflict in Georgia. Her recent publications include a range of materials on Russia’s vicious crackdown on critics of the government and on violations of international humanitarian law during the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. Lokshina is a recipient of the 2006 Andrei Sakharov Award, “Journalism as an Act of Conscience.” Her articles on human rights issues have been featured in prominent Russian and foreign media outlets, including CNN, the Guardian, Le Monde, the Moscow Times, Novaya Gazeta, and the Washington Post. Lokshina’s books include Chechnya Inside Out and Imposition of a Fake Political Settlement in the Northern Caucasus. In 2014, her article on the abusive virtue campaign against women in Chechnya was published in Chechnya at War and Beyond (Routledge Contemporary Russia and Eastern Europe Series).
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