Rising violence against women and girls sparks outrage in Kyrgyz society

A mural of Burulai, a 20-year old medical student who was killed by her abductor inside a police station. Photo by Mirbek Kadraliev / UN WOMEN via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In recent weeks, abuse of girls and women made headlines in Kyrgyz media ranging from cases of “ala kachuu” (abduction of young women and girls for the purpose of marriage) to sexual violence against underage girls.

On July 11, 2022, three men aged between 26 and 27 kidnapped a young woman for a marriage in one of the districts of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. The victim turned to the police and the suspected abductors were detained for 2 months. Around the same time, a 17- year-old girl was abducted in the area of Staryi Tolchok, the construction materials market in Bishkek. On the way to the pharmacy she noticed a car following. Inside were two men, one a friend of her neighbor's, who offered her a ride. When she refused, the man clamped her mouth shut and forced her into the vehicle. The two men drove the girl to her neighbor’s house, from where she managed to call the police. However, her own relatives rejected her, saying she had brought disgrace on the family. She turned to the “Otkrytaya Liniya” (Open Line) public fund, which helps victims of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan, a small Central Asian country bordering Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, sees one of the highest rates of kidnapping girls for marriage. According to demography and population dynamics researchers Lesia Nedoluzhko and Victor Agadjanian, one in three marriages in the country, especially in remote regions, begins with a kidnapping. Almost every week one can hear cases of ala kachuu, despite the long-established criminalization of the offense.

One of the most repellent examples that sparked a civil society outcry was the kidnapping of 19-year-old Burulai in 2018, when the kidnapper killed the young woman right at the police station in Bishkek. Another infamous case was that of Aizada Kanatbekova. In April 2021, in Bishkek, a group of five men abducted 26-year-old Aizada. Two days later, a local shepherd found the bodies of the abducted woman and one of her kidnappers inside a car between the villages of Arashan and Chokmorova in the Chuy region. These cases triggered outraged protests, with calls for dismissals of officials and other legal actions, and a push to change the legal provisions around bride-kidnapping. Currently, a new criminal code, adopted in October 2021, provides for liability in the form of imprisonment from up to seven years for kidnapping.

A scene from the women's solidarity march, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Photo by Meriza Emilbekova / UN Women Kyrgyzstan via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Sexual abuse of underage girls has also filled the news feeds in past weeks. In one recent egregious case, several men, including police officers, sexually abused a 13-year-old girl for about five months.  In August 2021, at the Dordoi bazaar in Bishkek, a seller accused a 13-year-old girl of trying to steal headphones and handed her over to the police, who, threatening her with a 10-year imprisonment and enormous fines, raped her. According to the victim’s father, two police officers and one more man passed his daughter among themselves, intimidated and raped her from August 2021 to February 2022. In the meantime, the rapists of another 13-year-old with disabilities in Sokuluk, a village in the Chuy Region, were sentenced but released because the statute of limitations on the crime had expired. The recurrent appeals took more than nine years for the courts to process, a period that was the statue of limitations, since the defendants were minors at the time they committed the crime.

In recent weeks, women's civil society organizations and feminist activists called on the government to take action to combat violence against women and girls, which is surging day by day, jeopardizing the lives of women and girls in Kyrgyzstan.

Rally against the violence against children in Bishkek

Such examples show how distrust of the population towards the police is growing in Kyrgyzstan, given that, instead of being guardians, law enforcement officers become perpetrators and endanger women seeking help. Given the inaction of the police and cracks in the judicial system, some sexual abuse cases can lead to arbitrariness or mob action. Thus, in late 2021, following the rape of a 16-year-old girl, the so-called “aksakals court” (court of elders) decided to evict the family of the rape suspect from the village.

Although some government officials expressed concerns about the rise of violence against women and girls, as well as readiness to reform law enforcement mechanisms, other officials and state-affiliated persons often bring in ambiguous opinions. Thus, for instance, Prime Minister Akylbek Zhaparov chose to lament that such “bad news” in the media harm tourism in Kyrgyzstan:

Если посмотрим на изнасилование маленькой девочки, об этом все написали, теперь [туристы] говорят, что не будут приезжать с детьми. Помните в прошлом году [была новость], которая висела на всех сайтах три недели, об изнасиловании 72-летней бабушки. Нажимают на любой русскоязычный сайт, казахи и русские, которые хотят приехать, читают новости и выбирают другие страны.

If we look at the rape of a little girl, everyone wrote about it, now [tourists] say they will not come with children. Remember last year [there was news], which hung on all the websites for three weeks, about the rape of a 72-year-old grandmother. Clicking on any Russian-language website, Kazakhs and Russians who want to come, read the news and choose other countries.

Gender-based violence has become a norm in Kyrgyzstan — according to the 2021/2022 Women, Peace and Security Index Highlights, the country is the most unsafe for women in the Central Asian region.  In 2021, the Kyrgyz Ministry of Internal Affairs registered 10,151 cases of domestic violence, higher than the previous year. Violence against children, including girls, increased twofold this year. In 2021, 254 cases of bride kidnapping were registered, but 84 percent of them were later dismissed or terminated. It must be noted, however, that this increase in numbers is unlikely to be only from a rapid increase in cases, as reporting and recording of gender-based violence has gone up  because society has begun to pay more attention to gender issues.

A view of the Uzgen bazaar, Osh region, Kyrgyzstan. Photo by Ninara via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Unfortunately, Kyrgyz society is still patriarchal and neo-traditionalist in many respects, still assigning a secondary role to women and not allowing them to control their fates. This aspect is of primary importance, influencing social attitudes, gender policy and the regulation of gender-based violence in Kyrgyzstan. Despite the country’s pledge to take the path of democracy following the collapse of the Soviet Union, domestic violence and trafficking in women, bride kidnapping, child marriages and kelinism (forced subordination of new brides to their mothers-in-law and relatives of their husbands) are still practiced in Kyrgyzstan, although formally criminalized.

In turn, the revival of Islamic sentiments also adds fuel to this bonfire, sometimes undermining the position of women, and religious officials often speak on gender issues with discriminatory rhetoric against women. Thus, a video of a sermon from July 6, 2022 by Sadybakas Doolov, the imam of one of the districts of Bishkek, caused social media outrage, as he claimed that the increase in meat prices in markets is due to the reduction in the value of “women’s meat,” reflected in their short dresses. What is more astounding, the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Kyrgyzstan found no sign of insult to any group or individuals in the imam's speech.

These are just a few of thousands of broken lives that have been brought to light due to the protests of Kyrgyz civil society. Meanwhile, the implementation of the newly adopted legislation on sexual violence, bride abduction, and domestic violence seems to be deeply flawed or obsolete, while the public has developed a high distrust of law enforcement agencies.

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