On October 6, Georgia was shocked by the news of the murder of 14-year-old ethnic Azerbaijani girl Aytaj Shahmarova.
The teen was allegedly gunned down by her 27-year-old "husband," Alim Aslanov.
According to her family, she had been abducted from her native village of Mamishlo in Dmanisi District and taken to Lambalo village in Sagarejo District about two months before her murder.
Witnesses in Lambalo say she had made several attempts at escape. On her last attempt, after Aslanov had caught her and brought her back to his house, she reportedly threatened to call the police after which he shot her multiple times, killing her.
Aslanov went on the run but was arrested three days later. He faces charges of premeditated murder under aggravating circumstances, illegal purchase and possession of firearms, and illegal detention of a minor. The Interior Ministry also told RFE/RL that Shahmarova's case was being investigated under the statute on "forced marriage."
Questions immediately surfaced about who exactly forced Aytaj to "marry" Alsanov. (As is often the case with such couplings in Georgia's ethnic Azerbaijani-populated regions, their "marriage" was not legally codified.)
The victim's mother, Yegana Maharramova, told reporters right after the murder that her daughter had been kidnapped and that she had tried to get her back. "The boy [Aslanov] told me that if I went there, he would kill me. My daughter wanted to leave him, that's why he killed her," she said.
But many wondered why she had apparently not contacted the police about her daughter's abduction. And the alleged perpetrator's father said that Aytaj had wed with the consent of her parents.
On October 11, police arrested Yegana Maharammova and her brother, Nadik Maharramov, on charges of abetting a forced marriage and failing to report a crime. They were placed in pretrial detention for two months.
Just days later, on October 18, a 14-year-old girl gave birth to a baby in the Azerbaijani-majority Bolnisi District. Local witnesses said the father was her 23-year-old "husband."
The Interior Ministry launched a criminal case on charges of sexual intercourse with a minor, which can entail a prison sentence of 7 to 9 years for the perpetrator.
But the two incidents are rare cases of public outcry and law-enforcement action over the systematic abuse of teenage girls in Georgia's ethnic Azerbaijani-populated areas.
Statistics show that the problem of child marriage is not restricted to the Azerbaijani community but is especially acute there. A collaborative 2018 study by the National Statistics Office of Georgia and UNICEF found that 37.6 percent of ethnic Azerbaijanis aged 20-24 had been married by age 19, compared with 12.4 percent for ethnic Georgians and 4.5 percent for ethnic Armenians.
The same study starkly illustrated the gender imbalance in teen marriages: 11.2 percent of girls aged 15-19 included in the survey were legally married or in a common-law marriage, compared to just 0.1 percent of boys.
There are a few members of Georgia's Azerbaijani community who speak out against child marriage. For the past 13 years public activist Samira Bayramova has been waging a campaign against the phenomenon through advocacy work among elected officials and holding seminars for ordinary citizens.
"We discuss how they, as Georgian citizens, should opt for education and civic activism instead of early marriages and domestic violence," she told Eurasianet.
She added, however, that the problem cannot be solved by civil society activism alone. "There is a responsibility on everyone - society, parents, government, kindergartens, schools. … There are not enough kindergartens, and no quality education at schools. School principals, as well as teachers, do their best to hide cases of forced marriages, abetting these crimes when they should be reporting them," she said.
Until 2015, the law had allowed marriage of 16 and 17-year-olds with parental consent. That same year, another law was passed making forced marriage illegal.
But Bayramova says it's not enough, as the practice continues through cohabitation without legal marriage. More specific, targeted legislation is needed, she said, such as prohibiting parents from betrothing their underage children to each other.
"Unfortunately, the relevant authorities don't care enough to take the issue seriously," she laments.
Jurist Ana Arganashvili has spent years documenting and combating the problem, including at the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman.
She spoke to RFE/RL about the economic and social factors that perpetuate the tradition of child marriage in Georgia's Azerbaijani community.
She said that sometimes poor families will marry off their daughters to give them a more comfortable life and to ease their own poverty.
She added that many members of the Azerbaijani community acknowledge that child marriage is a problem but feel helpless to stop it.
"The teacher says, 'what can I do?' the social worker says, 'what can I do?' the police officer says, 'what can I do?' ... And you can't ask anything of them. Yes, in terms of the law, you can ask them, but you know that they can't physically do anything," Arganashvili said.
In the face of such powerful social forces keeping the tradition of child marriage alive, Arganashvili believes it is nonetheless important to call it what it really is.
"Early marriage is in fact a form of child sexual abuse. We just softened the term, so that we wouldn't find it so shocking, and called it early marriage. It was also a euphemism to write 'kidnapping,' with 'for the purpose of marriage' in parentheses. It doesn't matter why a person is kidnapped, it's kidnapping."
Heydar Isayev is a journalist from Baku.