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In Tajikistan, Too Much Cousin Love Could Be Causing Birth Defect

A child being treated for a birth defect at a hospital in Tajikistan's Khatlon region.

A child being treated for a birth defect at a hospital in Tajikistan's Khatlon region. People in Tajikistan love their families, and it is threatening to destroy the nation. That's the reasoning behind growing calls to ban marriages between first cousins, a long-standing practice that is common throughout the Central Asian country.Proponents of the ban argue that the offspring of consanguineous marriages, or marriages between blood relations, run higher rates of birth defects and genetic illnesses that could ultimately prove to be the nation's undoing.

Detractors argue that the risks are exaggerated, that more scientific research is needed to make a clear link between consanguineous marriages and birth defects, and that a ban on consanguineous marriages would not solve the problem.

In the course of a few months, the debate has risen to a level that settling it is expected to be among the newly-elected parliament's first tasks.

Registration Efforts

While no bill banning first-cousin marriages has yet been drafted, support for such a measure has come in from the highest levels of government and health authorities have already begun to take action.

On March 17, the regional Health Department in the southern Khatlon Province announced that it had completed registering children born with disabilities, a process that included documenting whether their parents were related.

According to the figures, 9,700 persons up to the age of 18 were born with physical or mental disabilities in the province. Of them, 1,546 were the offspring of first cousins.

In the provincial capital, Qurgonteppa, nearly 25 percent of those registered as having been born with birth defects came from consanguineous marriages.

In addition to the registration effort, Khatlon health authorities have launched an awareness campaign that deploys teams of doctors to educate parents and young adults about the potential risks of consanguineous marriages to future generations. To give the campaign added weight, influential imams have been brought in by Khatlon authorities to help spread the word.

Rahmon Weighs In

The efforts in Khatlon followed a January speech by President Emomali Rahmon in which he expressed concerns about what he described as a "rise in marriages between blood relatives."

Addressing the outgoing parliament, Rahmon estimated that there were "about 13,000 disabled children in Tajikistan who rely on state support," and that many of them were born to consanguineous marriages. He then instructed the Health and Social Affairs ministries to work out viable options to prevent such marriages


Marriage Within Families Blamed In Tajik Birth Defects Cases

(WATCH: Marriage Within Families Blamed In Tajik Birth Defects Cases)

The speech rekindled debates that began in 2013 when Saodat Amirshoeva, a prominent former lawmaker and staunch critic of marriages among relatives, convinced parliament to draft a bill outlawing such unions.

The bill never made it to a parliamentary debate, and a working group set up to finalize the details was suspended indefinitely after a few meetings.

"Back then authorities said we didn't have the mechanisms and institutions in place to implement such a ban," Amirshoeva recently told RFE/RL's Tajik Service.

Rahmon's recent support gives the stalled initiative a lifeline, according to Amirshoeva.

She notes that "it's a tradition in Tajikistan that no one does anything until the president instructs it," concluding that his comments mean that Tajikistan has never been as close to banning marriages between cousins.

Religious Backing

Within days after Rahmon's speech, Tajikistan's Islamic Center head Faizullo Barotzoda backed what he called the "thoughtful initiative" by Rahmon aimed at "improving the nation's knowledge, health, capabilities, and quality of life."

But other religious figures have questioned whether banning marriages between cousins would solve anything.

Turajonzoda has called for all couples to undergo government-sponsored genetic and medical screenings before their marriages are registered, adding that their union should be discouraged in the event the tests revealed potential health risks for their children.

He adds that "Islam doesn't either ban or promote cousin marriage" -- noting that Islamic scholars have historically encouraged young people to marry strangers in the belief that such marriages bring good children. "At the same time," he says. "We are against such a ban."

Worldwide, an estimated 1 billion peoplelive in communities where consanguineous marriages are preferred. and such unions are common in Tajikistan and Central Asia.

The practice has long been associated with greater birth-defect risks, and various studies have considered consanguinity as a cause of birth defects.

The most recent and largest study to date -- the Britain-based study "Born in Bradford" -- confirmed that children whose parents are first cousins are twice as likely to be born with birth defects.

Family Tradition

Ending the centuries-old tradition would not be easy.

In many cases, the marriages involve well-to-do families that don't want outsiders inheriting their wealth, and the unions are seen as more stable because they enjoy support from parents, relatives, and community.

Zebo Karimova, a housewife from Khatlon, knows from her family's experience that marrying cousins can lead to devastating consequences.

Karimova is a caregiver for her five-year-old grandson, Anisjon, who suffers from a rare and incurable genetic condition that has left him unable to walk.

Anisjon's parents were first cousins.

Anisjon's father subsequently divorced his wife, blaming her for "giving birth to a sick child," and Karimova is wracked with guilt.

"I married off my daughter to my sister's son to have even closer family ties, but we didn't know there are health risks involved."

In southern region of Qurgonteppa, a former desert land where settlers were relocated by Soviet authorities in the 1930s, consanguineous marriages helped people retain their native traditions and dialects.

Breaking from tradition is frowned upon.

"My marriage nearly collapsed under pressures by my in-laws, who didn't want a stranger in the family


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    • By Santoro
      Dear all at cc,
      I became member of your website in order to help people who are sentimentally connected with their cousin make their life as much easier as possible by providing them valid information. Hope this will be particularly useful for hellenic (greek) people who want to marry their second cousin or first cousin once removed (defteranipsiòs/defteranipsià in hellenic) but also for non Hellenes who would like to compare the reality towards the cousin marriage in their country with the hellenic one.
      First of all, i would like to inform friends here at cc that Hellas (Greece) is certainly one european country where marriage between 4th degree relatives (that is first cousins) is not allowed. Both the Hellenic Orthodox Church (for those who want to have a church wedding) and the State through the National Legislation (for those who want to have a civil wedding) ban the first cousins wedding. 
      I am quoting the relative hyperlinks right here:
      Terms and conditions about the church wedding according Hellenic Orthodox Church:
      Terms and conditions about the civil wedding accoding to Astikós Kódhikas (Civil Law-pdf file):
      As Civil Law is a whole tome, just focus on articles 1350–1371. The critical article is 1356 which clearly states that the wedding between relatives up to the 4th degree is not allowed (literally stated "the wedding is prevented"). If you ask me, though not allowed, i sincerely don't know if there is legal punishment in case where two first cousins get married in Hellas.
      As a general rule for my compatriots who are seeking valid advice… If you are in love with your second cousin (6th degree relation) or with your first cousin once removed (5th degree relation - that is with your dad/mum cousin or the child of your first cousin), then there is no legal or religious obstacle to get married. Any obstacle opposed by families is just a mind job whose foundations are far from scientific proof and Genetics.
      After having asked friends who live in Italy, i got the answer that the italian law is similar with the hellenic. I think that many european countries (especially the catholic and orthodox ones) don't allow the first cousin marriage or they do it upon strict conditions. So, just for the sake of precision, Hellas (Greece) is defintely a European country where (first) cousin marriage is not allowed. So, talking about facts about cousin marriage here in the cc webpage
      there is room for some revision in fact no3.
      With best regards,
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