On April 11, Uzbekistan’s president Shavkat Mirziyoyev signed the law on strengthening the protection system for women and children. The law introduced groundbreaking changes to the criminal and administrative codes of the country. Tanzila Narbayeva, Chairperson of the Senate of Uzbekistan described it as “progressive” and asserted that it “meets international standards.” The law was adopted amidst a major scandal that took place in the Khorezm region in northwestern Uzbekistan, where three girls under the age of 18 were forced to have sexual intercourse with local state officials by the director of the orphanage where they lived. The three perpetrators got away with 1.5 years of suspended prison sentences. The case caused public outrage when it was published on Nemolchi.uz, a platform dedicated to fighting domestic violence.
This incident is part of a larger and worrying trend of a growing number of sexual crimes committed against children in Uzbekistan. From 2019 to 2022, the number has grown from 99 to 238. Global Voices spoke to Dilfuza Kurolova, a human rights lawyer from Uzbekistan, to learn about the major changes introduced by the law, challenges in the process of drafting and adopting it, and what should be done next to ensure effective implementation. Dilfuza was a member of the working group that drafted the law, and she campaigned for its adoption alongside other activist members of the group. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Nurbek Bekmurzaev (NB): What was the status quo with regards to protecting women and children from domestic violence and sexual crimes?
Dilfuza Kurolova (DK): Domestic violence was neither a criminal nor an administrative offense. Women simply could not report domestic violence. In 2019, the parliament adopted the law on protecting women's rights from harassment and violence. It touched upon domestic violence and prohibited it, but, since the criminal and administrative codes were not updated, this law did not work. At that time domestic violence still was not a crime.
There were protection orders issued by police to women and children for 30 days, which could be extended for another 30 days. If someone violated these orders, they could be jailed for 15 days. That was the only thing that domestic violence victims could do to protect themselves. When women came home with protection orders and showed them to their husbands, they were beaten up even more.
With regards to protection of children, the punishment was very light. There was also a big problem with the knowingness clause. If perpetrators did not know that children were underaged, it was not prosecuted severely. Perpetrators took advantage of this loophole and told the court that they did not know the age of survivors. It allowed them to get away from severe punishment. Sexual violence against children in Uzbekistan is often situational, meaning it is committed because it is permissible.
NB: Can you please talk about the biggest changes introduced by this new law?
DK: First, domestic violence is now criminalized. Second, the length of prison sentences for sexual violence against women and children increased from 3–11 to 5–15 years. Third, there are new articles in the Administrative Code on stalking and sexual harassment. Protection orders are now extended up to 1 year.
Prisoners who committed sexual violence crimes against women and children had the right to parole after serving two-thirds of their sentences. The new law states that those who commit such crimes do not have the right to parole.
Previously, if crimes were not completed, perpetrators received much shorter sentences. If someone wanted to rape a child but was caught in the process, that person received only one-third of the full sentence. According to the new law, it does not matter if they just started, got caught in the middle, or finished, they will be punished with full severity.
NB: What were the challenges in the process of developing, campaigning for, and adopting this law?
DK: It is important to note that this was the first time that activists, journalists, bloggers and other civil society representatives took part in the process of developing a bill. Previously, participation by non-governmental organizations was strictly formal. This time the authorities invited people they could not silence and who would actually take part in all processes.
After six months of working on the law, we realized that it was not going anywhere. We started publicly raising the issue of drafting and pushing this law.
Everyone in the working group agreed that domestic violence was bad, but, after the first hearing in the parliament, the article that criminalized it was removed. When the draft law was published for public discussion, we noticed that almost all our recommendations were removed. Every time there was a discussion in the parliament, we had to convince everyone of the need to keep them. There was a lot of resistance within state bodies.
Some of the things we proposed were not included. For example, the possibility of ending criminal cases by reconciliation, which we advocated for removing, stayed. In the criminal code, there is an article according to which people can withdraw complaints quoting reconciliation with their spouses. Police can close criminal cases in such instances. We wanted to remove this article because women retract their complaints under pressure from their husbands or other family members.
NB: What should state and non-state actors do next to ensure the effective implementation of the law?
DK: The Plenum of the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan has to adopt two decrees. The first one will be on sexual violence against women, and the second one on sexual crimes against children. They will provide detailed explanations of these crimes and how to investigate them. It is important for the plenum to do a good job on these decrees because it will affect how police officers understand and investigate domestic violence and sexual crimes against women and children.
There is a lot of work to be done in the law enforcement sector when it comes to receiving complaints from survivors and investigating related crimes. There is a big problem with rehabilitating survivors. There was a case in the Termez region in southern Uzbekistan in the beginning of the year when a 14-year-old girl was raped by three young men. Until we interfered in this case, only one of them was criticized for consensual sexual intercourse, and she was offered USD 500 to retrieve her complaint and close the case.
The girl did not undergo medical examinations. None of the responsible authorities thought about the physical and mental damage she sustained. All three perpetrators were brought to justice only after this case received nationwide public attention. This should have happened automatically. There should be work conducted with law enforcement bodies so they become survivor sensitive and stop survivor blaming.
Non-governmental organizations and civil society also have to play a big role. There should be a lot of work done to properly explain this law. There are many cases when people are telling that you can end up in prison for slapping your wife and that girls will take advantage of sexual harassment article and force everyone into jail. These are absurd and distorted discourses. There should be explanatory work that tells people that the law will not affect those who are not engaged in domestic violence.