Why domestic violence is flourishing in Kyrgyzstan - and how it could stop

Nearly three years ago, a law outlawing domestic violence was passed in Kyrgyzstan, but it has had little effect. Every day, hundreds of women are forced to take steps to save their lives.

Kamila Eshalieva
21 February 2020, 12.01am
A mural to Burulai Turdalieva, who was killed in 2018
CC BY NC ND 2.0 UN Women / Flickr. Some rights reserved

“I was abducted three years ago, when I was 19. I only saw him once before, when I was working in a shop,” Diana tells me.

One summer morning, the young woman climbed into a minibus that should have taken her to work. But Diana, whose name has been changed here for security reasons, didn’t arrive at work that day. When she got off the bus, unknown assailants pushed her into a car and drove her to Talas, a town in the northwest of Kyrgyzstan. She tried to push them off and run away, but her abductors were stronger. They took her mobile phone. One of the men was Adilet (not his real name), a young man who had one day wandered into the shop where Diana worked. And it was he who decided to abduct and marry her.

Adilet’s family and friends didn’t leave her any choice. They forced her to marry this man, who was practically a stranger. They had a Muslim marriage, and the bride’s family were not invited to it.

According to statistics, in Kyrgyzstan one young woman in 17 is abducted against her wishes – a crime popularly known as “ala kachuu” and still seen as an important tradition among some Kyrgyz. The young women, under pressure from their community, often give their unwilling agreement to the arrangement.

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In 2018, Kyrgyz Internal Ministry figures showed that over the previous five years there had been 895 reports of abduction known to the police, but 727 cases were dropped and only 168 criminal cases were brought to court – an average of 33 abduction cases a year.

Under Kyrgyzstan’s new criminal code, men who abduct young women in order to marry them face prison sentences of five to ten years.

This, however, did not stop Adilet.

“He would beat me with a strap and choke me, although he knew I was pregnant”

Diana soon started getting used to her new life, but her family - which had been created through the act of abduction - was never a happy one. And the fact that a previously unknown man had stolen her one day wasn’t the worst of it: Adilet soon began to show his real self, turning into a cruel tyrant to his wife.

“He seemed like a good man at first, and we lived fine together, without any rows for a month,” she tells me. “Then I found out that he drank, smoked and hung out with other women, but tried to hide it. After a month, I discovered that I was pregnant. I thought that after we had a child, my husband would change and things would get better. But that didn’t happen. He started beating me. I was in pain and covered in bruises, even on my stomach. He beat me on the parts of the body that wouldn’t be seen. But I couldn’t tell anyone.”

Domestic violence is not rare in Kyrgyzstan: its victims usually women and their abusers - their husbands. According to the National Statistics Committee, in 92% domestic violence cases the husband is the abuser, with the wife the abuser in only 8% of cases.

If in 2011, 1,714 cases of domestic violence against women were reported, in 2018 that figure had risen four-fold, to 6,522. These figures are again taken from the National Statistics Committee, but the real numbers could be much higher – not every victim goes to the police or asks family members for help.

This was the case with Diana. Adilet would frequently come home drunk, get into a row with his wife and then beat her again and again. But she couldn’t bring herself to go to the police. Her in-laws knew about it, but ignored the situation and made her cook and clean until she was exhausted.

Diana eventually couldn’t stand it any longer. She moved to Bishkek, the capital, to be with her mother. Things were much easier, away from her husband and the interminable rows and beatings. At first, she didn’t want to go back to Adilet, but then she decided not to leave her future child fatherless, as she had been herself. She was prepared to return to her “cage” for the sake of her child.

“I decided to go back to my husband, hoping for better treatment, but nothing had changed,” Diana tells me. “I washed, cooked and did all the housework, while he would disappear for days. And when he was at home, he would often take his belt to me and half-throttle me. I sank into a depression and lived with him like this until my sixth month of pregnancy, when one night my mother-in-law threw me out of the house. She took all my clothes and said: ‘Get lost! Nobody will believe you – they’ll say you left of your own accord’. So I left. It was raining. I had nothing with me apart from an ordinary phone. But I had nobody to phone anyway, so I called the police, to save myself.”

“In my ninth month, my husband kept phoning and getting on my nerves. All this made giving birth very difficult. I had heart failure due to oxygen deficiency, and when my son was born he wasn’t breathing properly and I was in shock”

When the police arrived, they took Diana to her godparents. At the hospital, the doctors said that Diana wouldn’t be able to have her child – she was in no condition to give birth and they couldn’t take responsibility for it. Diana, however, didn’t believe them and decided to be treated in Bishkek, and her godparents helped her to go home to her mother.

“In my ninth month, my husband kept phoning and getting on my nerves. All this made giving birth very difficult,” says Diana, her voice wavering. “I had heart failure, due to oxygen deficiency, and when my son was born he wasn’t breathing properly and I was in shock.”

Diana’s son survived. She spent the first 40 days after his birth with her mother, but then went back to her husband – a decision she later regreted.

“We had a row, we had no food at home, and the baby was hungry and sick. And he beat me again because I asked for money to take the baby for a check-up. I had broken ribs and my head was spinning. He threw me out of the house and took my child.”

Why does the law work like this?

This time, Diana took the decision to both leave Adilet for good and to get her son back. She turned for help to human rights organisations which work with victims of violence, and they helped her to write a statement to take to the police, get a restraining order and have her child returned to her.

Having taken her son away from her husband, Diana returned to Bishkek and began a new life. But despite the restraining order, she didn’t feel safe – she couldn’t bear the thought that Adilet might turn up at any moment and beat her to death. For a long time she avoided busy areas and made no contact with anyone.

In 2017, Kyrgyzstan adopted a new law "On Safeguarding and Protection against Domestic Violence", the culmination of three years of joint advocacy by the Forum of Women Parliamentarians, the UN Secretary-General’s UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign, civil society campaigners and the UN Gender Thematic Group, which consists of representatives from UN agencies in the country.

This new law forces the police to react to any appeal from any citizen referring to possible domestic violence, and to protect anyone experiencing it. If violence has been proven, the aggressor should receive a restraining order, initially for three days but extendable to a month. This forbids any physical contact or interaction with the person being subjected to violence and also protects members of their family. The aggressor, however, retains the right to live with their family in their home and can only be evicted or have their parental rights removed by the courts.

If the aggressor contravenes the conditions of the restraining order, they are only subject to a fine of 15,000-60,000 som (£166-£664) or to community service. There are, however, no guarantees to the victim that they will be free of further violence.

According to pre-2017 legislation, Kyrgyz police could detain an aggressor for up to five days. This was seen as not only a penalty for their offence, but also a preventive measure. But under new legislation, they can now only hold an aggressor for five hours or arrest them for a few days.

When you need to save yourself and your children, many women do not know where they can go and find support

Now an aggressor can “get away with” one of three kinds of administrative penalty – a fine of 30,000- 60,000 som (£332-£664), corrective labour for four to six months or community service for 40-60 hours. However, according to Kyrgyz Interior Ministry data, only 14% of cases get to court - the rest are dropped. This is mainly because of large fines that have to be paid out of the family budget, which affects the whole family.

Elena Tkacheva, head of the Chance crisis centre, tells me that instead of separating the aggressor from their victim, Kyrgyz police often attempt to reconcile the one with the other, which can end badly.

“The police don’t have a specific department to work with domestic violence,” Tkacheva says. “It’s because we’re a patriarchal society. Only 500 officers have been trained to react and work with victims of this violence. The rest are not competent. So, they try to reconcile the person who has experienced the violence with their abusive husband. And even if she manages to get a restraining order, who is going to monitor how it’s functioning? Also, where can the aggressor go? He can’t be evicted from his home without a court order. There is no one competent and responsible in dealing with domestic violence cases. And the general public doesn’t know their rights – who to go to and where to find a place of safety.”

CC BY NC 2.0 Matthias Buehler / Flickr. Some rights reserved

According to the law, people experiencing domestic violence have the right to a safe, temporary residence in a state or municipal refuge. But Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have a single state aid centre for people experiencing domestic violence. The country has 14 non-state run crisis centres, but only two of them have refuges: Sezim in Bishkek and Ak Zhurok in Osh, both of them dependent on charity. When you need to save yourself and your children, many women do not know where they can go and find support.

Men “punish” their wives, but they can often behave badly with impunity

Kyrgyzstan’s 2017 domestic violence law was supposed to be a breakthrough in terms of new legislation and to provide real protection for anyone experiencing cruelty from members of their family. In reality, the law hasn’t decreased the amount of domestic violence, while there is still no means of properly dealing with the issue. Many women still have to face violence from their husbands, while sacrificing their own happiness.

According to official statistics, in the last few years, more and more women facing domestic violence have been taking out restraining orders. However, there are still very few criminal cases being brought against aggressors. Men guilty of aggression are usually dealt with in lower, administrative courts, as the law isn’t designed for criminal cases. Its job is to avert domestic violence before it leads to the more serious consequences covered by the Kyrgyz Criminal Code. Between 2011 and 2018, out of 32,357 cases of reported domestic violence, 1,712 went to investigation.

Achieving justice and prosecuting the guilty is only possible if they have caused harm to victims’ life and limb. But here too there are traps and pitfalls. The type of criminal sanction meted out depends on the severity of the damage caused to the woman’s health. And this requires a forensic examination and a consequent conclusion on the extent of her physical injuries - in other words, proof that she is a genuine victim.

Not every woman is prepared to go through this. According to Kyrgyzstan’s National Statistics Committee, in 2018 only 20% of women (1,305) who had experienced domestic violence requested a forensic examination.

In May 2019, Human Rights Watch published a report on efforts by the Kyrgyz government to provide safety measures for women and girls in the country. The campaigners concluded that the restraining order system was ineffective in providing protection for them.

The report also said that “many women and girls who have experienced domestic violence or who have been abducted and forced unwillingly into marriage don’t report this to the police, and even if they do, their statements often fail to lead to a criminal investigation or guilty verdict”. HRW added that there were still “critical gaps” in Kyrgyzstan’s legislation and that the government’s actions to provide protection for women were “ineffective and inconsistent”.

Related story

It shouldn’t take a series of brutal murders to prompt government action.

The weakness of Kyrgyzstan’s campaign against domestic violence was finally recognised at government level in early January 2020, when family quarrels led to two women dying after being severely beaten by their husbands.

On 1 January 2020, a 36-year-old woman from the city of Naryn, in northern Kyrgyzstan, was beaten to death by her husband. Her skull was broken, her hair pulled out and her face lacerated. And just a few days later on 4 January a 26-year-old woman from the Batken region in southern Kyrgyzstan was also beaten to death by her husband. She died in a hospital bed, with multiple blood clots, bruises and burn marks on her body.

After these two shocking pieces of news, Kyrgyzstan’s MPs criticised the efforts of the country’s police in bringing the guilty to justice and called for more severe penalties for violence. Deputy Interior Minister Pamirbek Asanov promised that a draft bill on a tougher stance on domestic violence would be introduced, but with no mention of when that might happen.

A year has gone by since Diana left her husband. Her son is growing up in a less than full family, but still a loving one. His father doesn’t see his son and doesn’t help financially, and he also hasn’t been brought to justice for the way he treated his wife.

According to data from the Women’s Democratic Network, 186 women were killed as a result of domestic violence in Kyrgyzstan between 2013 and 2018. And the death toll is rising steeply: in 2017, 13 women were killed and 189 wounded, whilst in 2018, 62 women died from domestic violence and 288 were wounded.

It’s obvious that there’s no insurance against violence in Kyrgyzstan. It can happen to any woman - whatever her place of residence, education or social status. But violence in the family isn’t something to hide and put up with. The situation is likely to remain unchanging without real support from the Kyrgyz government and society. Thousands of women like Diana will go on suffering at the hands of their nearest and supposedly dearest without any recourse to help.

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