The kidnapped brides of Kyrgyzstan

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine sent me an extremely frightening video from Russian publication In the Now. I watched as young women were being seized in broad daylight from the streets of Kyrgyzstan, central Asia, and thrown into cars. I watched in shock, and it wasn’t long before there were tears streaming down my face.

While In the Now has been criticised for pedalling propaganda before, a quick Google revealed that what was depicted in the video was bride kidnapping, also known as “ala kachuu”, meaning “to take and flee” — a practice in which a man abducts a woman he wishes to marry. It’s a tradition which very much exists and unfortunately is still practised prominently in central Asia, in areas such as Kyrgyzstan.

Bride kidnapping takes place primarily in rural, but also urban areas of Kyrgyzstan. The practice contributes to an estimated 50% of all marriages in Kyrgyzstan and often leads to domestic violence and rape. It is estimated that, on average, one daughter is kidnapped every 40 minutes – some as young as 14 years old. That amounts to approximately 36 girls a day. 36 girls. Let that sink in. That’s more than the average number of students in a classroom.

Kyrgyzstan has an estimated population of around 6 million, with the majority of the population Muslim. However, this practice is not directly linked to any specific religion but rather stems from a historic tradition of consensual, ‘romantic’ kidnapping that has been misconstrued and re-invented over time.

The act has been illegal since 1994 and punishment for it was further amended in 2013 to increase the maximum prison sentence for kidnappers to seven years – ten if the bride is a minor. Nevertheless, bride kidnapping still exists and many perpetrators are not rightfully prosecuted; young women continue to be taken from their families, forced to become brides against their will.

The Alternative Report Kyrgyzstan 2015, created by the Women Support Center in Bishkek, states that although some women come forward to report this crime, many are deprived of their right to receive free qualified legal assistance because of their role as the victim in these cases. By law, state-allocated legal aid is not relevant to a victim, while free assistance is not available for civil cases.

To boot, very few cases of bride kidnapping are officially registered in Kyrgyzstan. The report claims that from 2008 to early 2012 the Department of Internal Affairs initiated just 76 criminal cases under Article 155 of the Criminal Code of the Kyrgyz Republic: “Forcing a woman to enter marriage or obstructing her from marriage.”

Many cases go unreported because of the stigma attached to women coming forward to report kidnapping. Women have also been shamed and taunted by their own families and communities, some eventually driven to suicide like the 17-year-old girl mentioned in the 2013 paper Reducing Non-Consensual Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan.

They are not seen as they should be; as strong women who have the courage to stand up to this injustice, but rather as disobedient women who have had the audacity to challenge exploitation and go against their husband and his family. The 2015 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) committee report stated that it is advocating to ensure that kidnapped brides can report cases without fear of stigma by implementing educational programmes for the public, particularly in rural and remote areas.

Another reason women are not rightfully supported by the law originates from the misinterpreted historical tradition of consensual bride kidnapping. Many believe the tradition stems from the 19th century when a couple fell in love and wanted to marry but their parents were against the wedding. The couple would agree that the man would kidnap the girl and they would elope and marry. Because many believe bride kidnapping to be tradition, practicing law enforcement professionals – men and women – very often refuse to register complaints made by victims. Where complaints are registered, many local authorities do not treat the issue with the severity it deserves. This lack of support is heartbreaking. Imagine stepping forward courageously to report your experience, only to find that so many are reluctant to get justice for you. How would it feel to be so badly failed by the very system which was supposed to keep you safe?

Most of us can only begin to imagine the sheer impact on wellbeing a crime like this has. Last year, Girls Not Brides and Alya Productions, in partnership with local organisation Kyz Korgon Institute, released a short movie which is both powerful and raises awareness about the threat to the independence of Kyrgyzstan’s girls and women.

The short film captures the voices of women who are victims of ala kachuu, some who have tried to escape and been kidnapped again, and some as young as 14. These are some of the few women who have been brave enough to speak out about their horrific experiences. One woman, who remains nameless, talks about being locked up by her mother–in–law shortly after giving birth. She tells us how she was starved and unable to breastfeed which resulted in eventually losing her one-month-old child.

The same woman tells the camera that she continues to carry the heavy guilt of not being able to look after or save her child. “That I was the one that killed my child”, she says as she breaks down. Another woman spoke of how she was repeatedly beaten by her husband who, she feels, suffered from a mental health condition himself. No one was there to help her. One girl innocently asks “How can you live without love?” and later in the video mentions that she wanted to end her life. No one should have to live through experiences like these.

Data from the Women Support Center suggests that are at least 11,800 cases of forced abduction of women and girls every year in Kyrgyzstan. More than 2,000 of those girls are reported as raped.

Feruza, another survivor, told Human Rights Watch (HRW) how she was repeatedly raped by her kidnapper for almost 18 months. “I didn’t want to ever go to sleep. I’d fight him off and try to sleep and he’d fight with me and hit me and force me…. I told my mother-in-law that I didn’t want to live with him, but she just said I needed to stay, she said, ‘It happened to me also and I lived through it and so should you.’” This woman is a part of the minority who are fortunate to escape, yet still, she went on to describe how even now she lives in fear that she could be kidnapped again. She was just 17 years old when she was taken.

Kidnapped women have their independence robbed from them. A kidnapped woman is not allowed to leave the house – literally kept as a prisoner – and begins a new life away from her family. This lack of support is also a significant reason why women are even less inclined to come forward to report the crime. What’s even more saddening is that these women are not only physically, psychologically, and emotionally abused by the men who have kidnapped them, but by other women in the household, too.

Patriarchal stereotypes are one of the reasons why families in Kyrgyzstan generally see a new bride as someone who should be serving her in-laws. The 2006 HWR report Reconciled to Violence: State Failure to Stop Domestic Abuse and Abduction of Women in Kyrgyzstan states that “new brides are often treated harshly by their in–laws and particularly are regarded as, and function much like servants to their mothers–in–law.”

The report also includes accounts of women who were kidnapped, many of whom admitted to having experienced anxiety, depression, fear, paranoia, and sleeplessness – common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Whilst there are many NGOs and international human rights bodies that are working tirelessly to help Kyrgyz women who are victims of bride kidnapping, the challenge is trying to get the support of the government and public. The CEDAW committee has expressed deep concerns about the practice despite the changes to the criminal code. They want to develop a comprehensive strategy to ensure the effective investigation, prosecution, and conviction of perpetrators, as well as ensuring adequate support services are available for victims.

The more I spoke to family and friends about bride kidnapping, the more I realised that there is still so much awareness that needs to be raised about this. Women are not objects and should not be looked at as possessions or trophies. It’s wrong. It is not fair that so many women and young girls are taken from the streets of Kyrgyzstan, forced to cut ties with their families, and made to feel that there is no one out there that can help them despite bride kidnapping being a criminal offence. How can so many women be allowed to carry on their lives in an abusive marriage? How can so many be raped from such young ages? How can so many be forced to be part of a loveless marriage that translates into a lifetime of abuse and slave labour?

Sana

Sana is a British Pakistani woman with a strong interest in gender and race equality. She has recently found her voice on these topics. Twitter Handle: @san_rants