In Kyrgyzstan, if a man kidnaps a woman to make her his wife, he runs little risk of prosecution. Should he steal sheep, however, there’s a good chance he’ll go to prison.
In the first eight months of this year, according to statistics provided by the Interior Ministry, criminal proceedings were initiated in 10 cases of bride kidnapping (“ala kachuu”) across Kyrgyzstan. By contrast, in the same period Kyrgyz courts heard 666 cases of livestock theft. There are no reliable figures, but human rights activists believe thousands of women are kidnapped and forced into marriage each year in Kyrgyzstan. The figure could be as high as 75 percent in some rural areas.
Though both activities are illegal, the punishment is greater for livestock theft. Article 165 of Kyrgyzstan’s criminal code authorizes up to 11 years in prison for livestock theft, but Article 155 allows only three years for bride kidnapping.
Moreover, many times a bride-kidnapping victim, facing shame and stigma from society, will not press charges. And local authorities sometimes pressure a family not to pursue justice. Prison sentences for bride kidnapping are rare.
“In most cases, victims do not report bride kidnapping so no investigation takes place, which in turn means no criminal charges,” says Nadezhda Prigoda, lawyer and gender expert in Bishkek. Researchers have even found police unwilling to accept charges in some bride kidnapping cases.
But officials show no such hesitation investigating livestock theft. This discrepancy helps perpetuate the view that bride kidnapping is a less-serious crime, said Prigoda. “Society’s view of bride kidnapping and the severity of the crime will change only when perpetrators are punished accordingly and serve proper sentences,” she said.
One recent case has horrified and heartened women’s rights activists: On September 20, a man in Issyk-Kul Province was sentenced to six years in a high-security prison for kidnapping and raping a 20-year-old girl this summer, the 24.kg news agency reported. But it seems the case, the harshest sentence for a bride kidnapping related crime yet says the ombudsman’s office, only went to court because, a day after her kidnapping, the girl hanged herself. The defendant has appealed.
In August 2011, Freedom House’s partners conducted two studies in Karakol and Talas – in Kyrgyzstan’s northeast and the northwest, respectively – on bride kidnapping. In Talas, of 400 men and women between ages 16 and 60 surveyed, 45 percent did not know that bride kidnapping was a crime; 62 percent of female respondents had been kidnapped, and 87 percent of men and women claimed to have participated in a kidnapping (the kidnappers’ female relatives are often employed to convince the girl to stay after an abduction). In Karakol, of 255 surveyed, 17 percent did not know that bride kidnapping was illegal, 55 percent of females said they had been kidnapped, and 88 percent of men and women claimed to have participated in a kidnapping.
“These acts are recognized [by international law] as human rights violations,” said Alina Murzaeva, a lecturer on international law at the American University of Central Asia, pointing out that Kyrgyzstan has ratified the UN’s Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages, as well as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
Murzaeva says that though bride kidnapping is not considered a “serious crime,” the act itself is often accompanied by violent crimes, especially rape, which should be prosecuted, but rarely are. First, however, a stronger women’s rights lobby is necessary, she said.
The weakness of such a lobby is often evident in parliament, where 78 percent of deputies are men. During a parliamentary session in June, for example, Vice Speaker Asiya Sasykbaeva urged her colleagues to put the penalty for bride kidnapping on a par with any kidnapping. According to Article 123 of the Criminal Code, abduction of humans is punishable by five to 10 years imprisonment.
She was ridiculed. A number of male MPs spoke out against the initiative, claiming the punishment is too tough; others were categorically against introducing any new punishments; still others argued that bride kidnapping is a tradition. “I propose fines or administrative punishments, otherwise prisons will not have enough space for the kidnappers,” said MP Kurmanbek Dyikanbaev in comments carried by Knews.kg.
With attitudes like that coming from Kyrgyzstan’s leaders, we women have a long way to go to fight the injustice and indignity of bride kidnapping.
Aigul Kasymova is a program officer with Freedom House in Bishkek.