Type the phrase “Kyrgyzstan bride kidnapping” into YouTube and you can witness the brutality of the practice in any number of videos online showing groups of young men grabbing women in broad daylight, packing them into cars and driving away.
There is no denying these are violent abductions: In the videos, the panicked women struggle, scream and weep as several men forcibly carry them into houses where a group of the would-be groom’s female relatives bully them and prevent them from leaving. The targets are usually young women or girls, some under the legal marriage age of 18. Once abducted, the young woman is taken to the family home of the would-be groom and subjected to psychological pressure by his female relatives and even rape by the man until she agrees to the marriage. According to the country’s conservative social norms, simply by her having been held captive the girl’s virtue is irredeemably compromised, and she is often shamed into remaining with her kidnapper.
Despite bride kidnapping being a crime in Kyrgyzstan, perpetrators are rarely convicted. In its country report last year, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) said it is “deeply concerned that bride kidnapping appears to be socially legitimized and surrounded by a culture of silence and impunity, and that cases of bride kidnapping remain under-reported, as they are considered a private issue that should remain within the family.” The government is making moves to tackle the issue, but advocates say more needs to be done, including actual enforcement of legislation, public education and the empowerment of Kyrgyz women.
Official statistics on bride kidnapping are nonexistent. The term bride kidnapping, or “ala kachuu” in Kyrgyz, refers to abduction for marriage. But it encompasses both the capturing of a girl against her will – either by an acquaintance or someone she’s never met – and a form of elopement where the woman consents to the marriage but the couple find a way to bypass parental approval or avoid payment of the dowry. Because of this conflation, some observers dismiss the seriousness of the issue.
According to Umutai Dauletova, an expert on policy implications for women with the U.N. Development Program, the government is working with the U.N. Population Fund and U.N. Women on researching more accurate bride kidnapping statistics for release in December. Until then, the latest available data comes from studies by Russell Kleinbach, deputy director of the Kyz Korgon Institute, professor emeritus at Philadelphia University and an expert in the field. His research, conducted between 2004 and 2013, found that up to half of all marriages in Kyrgyzstan resulted from bride kidnapping and one-third are non-consensual. U.N. Women uses figures from the NGO Women Support Centre of at least 11,800 cases of forced abduction of women and girls every year in Kyrgyzstan, with more than 2,000 of them having reported being raped (Kyrgyzstan’s total population is just under 6 million). “Some people say the phenomenon of bride kidnapping is going down, but without official data, it’s hard to say,” says Dauletova.
The commonly held belief that bride kidnapping comes from a long-standing Kyrgyz tradition is rejected in Kleinbach’s report. He says that before the Soviet era, the practice was extremely rare as it caused serious conflicts between families or clans. “Bride kidnapping without consent is not found in the [18th-century poem] Manas Epos or other Kyrgyz epics,” he says. “Forced marriage is totally forbidden in Islam. In Sharia law, any marriage that is forced in any way is null and void.”
Supporting the charge by rights experts that bride kidnapping is a form of sexual violence, the Kyrgyz government acknowledges in its National Strategy to Achieve Gender Equality by 2020 that the practice is one example of the link between gender inequality and violence against women.
“The big issue here is early marriage,” says Dauletova. As many victims of bride kidnapping are 17 to 18 years old or younger, families use religious ceremonies (“nikeh”) to consecrate the marriages and avoid registration with the state, according to experts. Without state recognition of these marriages, the women have no protection in cases of divorce or abandonment. And Kyrgyzstan has the highest maternal mortality rate in central Asia – for the past decade, the maternal mortality rate has rarely dropped below 50 per 100,000 live births. Dauletova says the high number of underage girls giving birth following forced marriage is one factor among others.
According to Chingiz Batyrbekov, professor of human rights at the American University of Central Asia, change is coming slowly. “Bride kidnapping is a human rights problem, but it has not been perceived as one until very recently,” he says. And like many rights advocates, Batyrbekov feels the government isn’t doing enough. “Laws were adopted, but they don’t work,” he says. “The government doesn’t see it as an issue. Only women MPs are addressing the problem.”
In 2013, President Almazbek Atambayev approved legislation that increased the penalty for bride kidnapping to up to 10 years. Prior to that, a man could get a longer prison term for stealing a sheep than for abducting an underage girl for forced marriage. Various initiatives are being taken by female MPs, says Dauletova, but women remain under-represented in decision-making positions, including the national legislature.
CEDAW recommends that the government develop a comprehensive strategy to address bride kidnapping that includes effective investigation, prosecution and conviction of perpetrators, as well as remedies and support services for victims. Beyond these measures, experts say addressing the traditional cultural attitudes and underlying causes of bride kidnapping requires education and awareness-raising. “NGOs have tried media campaigns, but these aren’t working for various reasons. Public awareness needs to be done from the highest levels, from the president’s office, and include authoritative figures like elders and religious leaders,” says Batyrbekov.
Empowering girls and women would be another essential step, Dauletova says. “We’re not very good at sexuality education or addressing domestic violence,” she says. “We need to turn this around.”
Batyrbekov agrees. “The main work should be done with the girls themselves, because they’re subject to pressure from the families, including their own,” he says.