BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – Elena Pashkurova is serving 18 years for murdering her husband. At first, “we lived happily and he treated me well,” she said in a testimony given to the Chance Crisis Center for abused women. But the situation changed after the birth of their second son. “He beat me, forbade me to see friends and family, and made me have sex against my will.”
This carried on for over a decade. Then, one day, Pashkurova snapped. “I could not stand it, and living in fear, my patience ended,” she said in her testimony. She struck her husband over the head with a sledgehammer and he died instantly. “I know this is not the right way out, to kill. But I could not stand the brutal pressure.” In 2009, Pashkurova was jailed in the country’s only women’s prison, in Stepnoye village, about 15km (9 miles) from the capital Bishkek. Her children were sent to an orphanage.
Pashkurova’s story is not unique in Kyrgyzstan, where extreme violence between husbands and wives is commonplace “it has become an acceptable standard of behavior, a method of conflict resolution,” says Elena Tkacheva, director of the Chance Crisis Center, based in Bishkek.
Human rights experts say the tacit acceptance of domestic violence means the crime is routinely ignored by authorities. Many women remain trapped in abusive relationships and sometimes find themselves pushed to breaking point. According to a report by Penal Reform International, 20 percent of female prisoners have killed a male family member. This statistic is “strikingly high compared to other [Central Asian] countries,” the report says.
Most of these prisoners are first-time offenders who say they acted in self-defense. “They couldn’t take it any more, and in 90 percent of cases the woman stabbed [her partner] with a knife and it reached the heart immediately,” says Azamat Shambilov, regional director of Penal Reform International in Central Asia. “The majority who committed murder suffered depression after a long period of domestic violence.”
The Kyrgyzstan government says that 89 percent of female prisoners convicted of murder – regardless of the victim – have suffered domestic violence for prolonged periods.
Domestic violence in Kyrgyzstan takes many forms – beatings, psychological pressure, verbal abuse, sexual coercion and rape, says Tkacheva at the Chance Crisis Center. “Family violence is a huge social problem.” A survey by the Health Ministry shows that a quarter of the women in the country experience domestic violence over their lifetimes, but the overwhelming majority never speak out.
In her testimony, Pashkurova says she was too scared to tell anyone about the abuse she was enduring. “I hid everything from my relatives, pretending that I’m alright, that I’m happy.” When she finally rang the police, she says they told her to sort it out herself.
Kyrgyzstan’s failure to support women in abusive relationships was detailed in a 2015 Human Rights Watch report. Its author, Hillary Margolis, says many Kyrgyz women she spoke to felt “they had nowhere to go, no one to help them.” Margolis recalls one battered woman who rang the police, only to be told, “Call me back when he’s actually going to kill you.”
The problem, say activists, is that in many cases the police and social services intervene when it is too late, “when women have already been beaten or have injuries, or murder has been committed,” says Larisa Ilybezova, a women’s rights expert at the Democratic Process Research Center in Bishkek.
A woman suffering abuse can ask the police and the courts to issue a temporary protection order to force her abuser to leave the family home, but in Kyrgyzstan such orders are rarely used, and in many cases victims are not even informed of the option.
There is promise, however, in a new law that aims to increase the number and effectiveness of protection orders and better safeguard domestic abuse victims, say activists. The law, called the Prevention and Protection from Family Violence Act, which was adopted in April, compels police to “respond and take all necessary actions to curb violence,” says Zulfia Kochorbaeva, a gender expert who helped draft the law.
The police have been granted a new three-day protection order, which can be issued immediately, and which the abuse survivor can have extended to 30 days.
The law also enables anyone who witnesses domestic violence to report the crime; in the past, only survivors could make a formal police statement. Kochorbaeva says that in Kyrgyz society, “victims are pressured by relatives and the perpetrator, so many do not go to the police.”
While some parts of the new law are already in effect, others won’t begin until January 1, 2018, including provisions giving domestic violence survivors the right to access social and psychological support and free temporary accommodation in women’s shelters. A government working group is also developing corrective programs for perpetrators.
If the government commits all the necessary resources and the new law is properly enforced, Kochorbaeva is confident more women will finally be able to feel safe in their homes. And fewer will feel they have to turn to murder to protect themselves.
“The perpetrator will not escape responsibility, violence will not become common practice in families, and therefore the situation will not reach a level from which there is no return,” she says.