Seventeen-year-old Samaia Guseinova will finish school next year. She thinks she is lucky, because almost all other girls of her age in the village are already married and are forced to withdraw from their education. In the 9th grade, Samaia first raised her voice against early marriages, which was quite unusual in her community, where early marriages are a common practice.
“My village, Tsurtavi, is known for early marriages, and almost all girls in the 9th and 10th grades are already married. I’m a lucky exception. My family supports me and I can continue my studies. My parents are proud of me,” Samaia says, adding that she wants other girls to be just as lucky. “I decided to change the future for other girls, to make a minor contribution to their lives, and to be an example for them,” she says.
Samaia has had a tough time living in a community guided by traditions and stereotypes, and despite her parents’ support, she has encountered a number of obstacles in her activism: “I had many friends who are now either engaged or married, and unfortunately, I have no contact with them anymore. This year, another 14-year-old girl in our village got married. When I spoke to my peers about the adverse impacts of early marriage, their parents got annoyed at me. They said: ‘She’s a girl, so she should get married, or it will be too late for her to marry at 20 or 21.’ Their attitude was so negative and aggressive that I was afraid to talk to them,” Samaia recalls.
Despite the resistance, Samaia was determined to give her peers the same opportunities that she had. “First of all, with my teacher’s, Temur Sukashvili’s help, I became interested in self-development, so I participated in various projects and training, enrolled in several organizations, learned about non-formal education and thought about ways of helping others. Then I engaged in volunteering and gradually became an activist,” Samaia says.
She recalls the first steps of her activism, which included training within an EU-supported project called ‘Youth for Social Change’, and explains that no one she knows was interested in such activities before: “There were no activists in my class, but when my friends saw how active I was and that I was meeting new people, making new friends and developing myself, they also opted for activism. Now, they are gradually moving in this direction,” Samaia says proudly, adding that her community’s attitude is gradually changing as well.
“Now local people say they are proud of me, of how active and successful I am; yet they still don’t want their children to be like me, and want them to marry early. However, we do have certain achievements in our activism: two girls from my village entered a college in Marneuli,” she says.
The implementers of the EU-supported project also consider early marriages a harmful practice. According to the UNFPA, early marriage affects both the health and education of girls, and eventually results in them dropping out of school.
UNFPA Program Officer Marika Kurdadze explains: “The aim of our program is to raise awareness among our beneficiaries so that they can share knowledge with peers and family members. Our training participants once took part in an early marriage information campaign targeting both parents and adolescents. They explained to young people the impacts that early marriage could have on their health, access to education and other aspects of their life; and some extremely interesting discussions took place.
“It is notable that the project representatives never actually met community members: instead, the young people themselves raised awareness and promoted change. They led the way by changing their own lives and their environment and translating the changes into attitudes. Young people say that while initially their parents resist and disagree with their opinions, after a while they start thinking about the possible negative impacts early marriage can have on their children’s future. Slowly, they begin to critically revisit the community’s norms and stereotypes.
“This step-change will take time, but the first steps have been taken,” Ms Kurdadze adds. “And investing in youth is a very important strategy for the country, because our young people put their attitudes into practice and pass them on to future generations.” Samaia is one of those young people. Currently preparing to take national examinations, she truly believes that small initiatives can play a huge role in shaping young people’s views and values. Her ultimate goal is to give teenagers the opportunity to have a childhood and access to education so that they can build a successful career.