What stands behind Central Asia’s ugly problem with domestic violence

Kuandyk Bishimbayev, who killed his wife Saltanat Nukenova, sitting in court in Astana, Kazakhstan. Screenshot from the video “«Шесть с половиной часов она меня мучила»: Бишимбаев рассказал, за что мстил Салтанат” from Informburo 31‘s YouTube channel. Fair use.

This post contains mentions of domestic violence which may be disturbing to some readers.

Since late March, Kazakhstan has been gripped by the ongoing jury trial of the former economy minister, Kuandyk Bishimbayev, who killed his wife, Saltanat Nukenova. A particularly disturbing detail of the case is that Bishimbayev beat her to death in a brutal ordeal that lasted eight hours at the restaurant owned by his family. The broadcasting of the trial has turned the case into the most widely discussed event in the country, stirring heated discussions on domestic violence.

While Bishimbayev was on trial, in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, the news about the murder of two women created headlines and brought the issue of domestic violence to the fore. One of them was killed by her partner, who kept the body for nine days before disposing of it in the nearby dumpster. Another was killed by her former husband, who stabbed her 27 times before calling an ambulance.

As a result of the public outcry and demand for changes, on April 11, Kazakhstan’s parliament passed a bill criminalizing domestic violence. While this is a much-needed legal step for addressing the problem, it is clear that domestic violence in Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Central Asia is a complex issue that requires more than new legislation. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, which have already adopted similar legislation, are still plagued by outrageous cases of domestic violence. What stands behind this widespread and persistent problem are destructive social norms and ineffective work by the relevant state bodies towards preventing violence and prosecuting perpetrators.

A transborder and long-standing problem

Domestic violence is a widespread issue in all the five Central Asian states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. News about the assault and murder of women by their intimate partners, husbands, and boyfriends in these countries constantly appear in the media, revealing the problem’s growing scale and lack of effective mechanisms to protect women.

In 2023, the law enforcement authorities in Kazakhstan received 100,000 complaints of domestic violence, which is three times more than the number of complaints in the previous five years combined. In 2023, it was revealed that 869 people died and 2,086 received severe health damage from domestic violence in the preceding four and a half years. In 2017, a nationwide survey showed that at least 17 percent of all women in the country were physically abused by their intimate partners, and 51 percent of the affected said that they had not reported about it before.

Here is a documentary on domestic violence in Kazakhstan.

In Uzbekistan, where domestic violence was criminalized only in April 2023, 9,131 people were found guilty of the crime and received administrative and criminal sentences in 2023. For 2024, this number will likely grow, since, in the first three months of the year, the number of convicted reached 4,477 people.

In Tajikistan, domestic violence is yet to be criminalized. In 2023, Tajikistan ranked lowest out of 177 countries in the “Current intimate partner violence” category of the Global Women, Peace, and Security Index. This particular indicator measures the percentage of women who experienced physical and sexual violence by intimate partners. According to a UN study published in 2023, one third of women in Tajikistan experience domestic violence from intimate partners.

In Turkmenistan, a nationwide survey from 2020 revealed that 12 percent or one in every eight women in the country experienced physical and/or sexual violence from their intimate partners. The study also shed light on the fact that domestic violence cases are severely underreported, with less than 12 percent of the survivors filing complaints with the police and seeking help from other institutions.

Kyrgyzstan, which became the first Central Asian country to criminalize domestic violence in 2017, continues to record high numbers of domestic violence cases. In 2022, there were 9,959 reported cases of domestic violence, and 92 percent of the survivors were women. In 2023, this number increased to 13,104 cases with 95 percent of the survivors being women. Additionally, Kyrgyzstan ranks as the most unsafe Central Asian country in the Global Women, Peace, and Security Index.

Here is a documentary on domestic violence in Kyrgyzstan.

Patriarchy and ineffective state institutions

The widespread nature of the problem translates into an endless cycle of outrageous stories of assaults and murders of women in the region. For example, before the murder of Nukenova in November 2023, which is being widely discussed now, people in the region closely followed the case of Asel Nogoibaeva from Kyrgyzstan, whose former husband assaulted her and cut off her nose and ears in September 2023.

The most glaring reason for this disturbing trend has been the absence of an effective legal framework, leading to impunity. In 2017, when domestic violence was decriminalized in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan became the only country in the region where it was criminalized. The authorities in Kazakhstan reversed their 2017 decision this month due to the demands of the public, and Uzbekistan criminalized domestic violence only in April 2023. Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are yet to criminalize it, and perpetrators in these countries can get away with restraining orders and paying fines.

Two overarching problems tower over the issue of domestic violence. The first one is patriarchal norms, which justify domestic violence and lead to its acceptance both by perpetrators and survivors. From a young age, boys are brought up to be aggressive and girls are raised to be submissive and obedient and take on the role of a wife who agrees to the terms of the aggressor and seeks to resolve the conflict within the family.

Survey results from Turkmenistan show that almost 20 percent of women respondents believe that is justified for husbands to beat their wives if they leave the home without their husband’s permission. In Tajikistan, almost 48 percent of women respondents agreed that domestic violence is a private matter for each family, and 41 percent stated that beating a partner for various reasons was justified. These patriarchal norms are complemented by the government-promoted traditional values that emphasize family integrity at the expense of the rights and protection of women.

The second problem is the authorities’ reluctance to adopt robust measures and the indifference of relevant state bodies to preventing domestic violence. Human rights researcher Svetlana Dzardanova notes that governments in the region attack people who raise the issue of domestic violence instead of addressing the problem. The authorities perceive local organizations that promote discussions on domestic violence as outsiders trying to advance foreign norms contradictory to traditional values.

On the grassroots level, instead of registering complaints from survivors and launching investigations, police often try to reconcile them with aggressors. Judges pass lenient verdicts in cases involving domestic violence, allowing perpetrators to avoid jail time. For example, in the case of Nogoibaeva, the judge assigned probationary supervision to her former husband, who assaulted her after being released from prison, where he was serving a sentence for raping his former wife twice.

The fight against domestic violence in Central Asia is moving at a slow pace. At this point in time, it still requires landmark cases, such as the publicly televised trial of Kuandyk Bishimbayev, to advance further and claim small victories.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.