When banker Darkhan Botabayev tried to book a flight on Kazakhstan’s national airline last September, what started as a routine transaction turned into an assault that shocked the nation: Botabayev lost his temper and punched the young female ticket clerk in the face.
Another violent incident occurred in October, when Kanatbay Turmaganbetov, a rural mayor in northern Kazakhstan, took exception to a woman photographing a billboard of President Nursultan Nazarbayev: He summoned her to his office where he “bashed her head against the wall, punched her several times in the chest and kicked her,” according to a local media report.
Turmaganbetov was prosecuted, fined and fired; Botabayev was forced to resign as a member of Kazinvestbank’s board and blacklisted by Air Astana – after which he apologized to his victim bearing a bouquet of flowers, and donated $10,000 to charity. These incidents caused an outcry in Kazakhstan, but activists point out that they aren’t isolated cases. Most disturbingly, many assaults against women take place behind closed doors.
Take Marina, who married an abusive man to escape a father who turned violent on her after she was raped at the age of 15 and became pregnant; or Irina, whose husband set fire to her mother’s flat after she fled there to escape further abuse. Some victims do not survive, like Rashida, found with a knife sticking out of her chest after her husband broke into her safe house, locked her daughters into a bedroom and stabbed her to death.
These testimonies were collected by the Podrugi (Girlfriends) Crisis Center in Almaty, which offers psychological and legal support for victims of violence, and training for law-enforcement, education, and healthcare professionals. The organization also is trying to force the issue up Kazakhstan’s political agenda.
When Podrugi was set up 15 years ago, domestic violence was not acknowledged as a problem or a crime, instead it was often portrayed as a private family matter. Activists’ relentless efforts have helped change public perceptions. And in last year’s state-of-the-nation address, an “alarmed” President Nazarbayev singled out the issue as one in need of attention.
“Violence is not a private problem,” Nadezhda Gladyr, Podrugi’s president, told EurasiaNet.org in an interview. “It is a social problem, because it goes beyond the boundaries of the family. It is a problem of the state.”
One landmark in the fight to raise awareness was the passing of a law against domestic violence in 2009. Legal amendments to tighten it up and offer victims more support are currently making their way through parliament.
No one knows how many women are victims of domestic violence in Kazakhstan every year. Paradoxically, official statistics (notoriously unreliable on gender violence in most countries) show that the number of reported crimes has fallen since the law was adopted, whereas a rise might have been expected with a new legal mechanism in place.
According to data from the General-Prosecutor’s Office Legal Statistics Committee, there were 783 registered cases in 2012, against 887 in 2009. Last year, 285 women died in domestic-violence-related incidents, according to Gulshara Abdykalikova, head of the National Commission for Women’s Affairs and Family Demographic Policy. Last month, she was promoted to deputy prime minister.
Podrugi representatives suggest that one-fifth of families in Kazakhstan suffer from domestic violence. Meanwhile, the national Statistics Agency’s report on crime against women in 2012 said 13,797 violent crimes against women were registered, “in many cases” incidents of domestic violence.
The stigma of reporting it is great, so “not all women talk about this, they don’t want to air their dirty laundry in public,” Abdykalikova said in February. “Society is very tolerant toward domestic violence,” Tatyana Usmanova of the Center for Supporting Women, an NGO, told a round table in January.
Even when women go to the police, complaints are often dropped for reasons ranging from family pressure to financial dependence on the alleged perpetrator. Some 20,000 women filed police complaints about domestic violence in 2011, Deputy Interior Minister Kayrat Tynybekov told parliament last year. Only a fraction of those initial complaints, however, end up in the official records.
The disparity between the number of reported crimes and the number of women seeking help is huge: In October parliament heard that 37,000 women had sought assistance from special Interior Ministry Units to Protect Women From Violence so far in 2013, and 11,000 had turned to Kazakhstan’s 28 crisis centers.
The conviction rate for domestic violence crimes appears to have fallen since the law was adopted. There were 509 convictions in 2012, against 988 in 2009 – a 48 percent drop that is far greater than the 12-percent fall in reported crimes, although convictions on lesser charges can skew the numbers. Last year 386 people received custodial sentences (76 percent of convictions).
In connection with the annual global Say NO campaign, which began November 25 and concluded December 10, Podrugi lobbied Astana to set up a nationwide network of state-funded shelters for victims of domestic violence. At present, non-governmental organizations operate a patchy network, and some major cities – including Almaty – do not have designated shelters. MPs have spoken out in support of a state role.
“It is important for us human rights defenders who represent women’s rights that the state should play a major role in preventing this violence, and state shelters are therefore really important to us,” Gladyr said. She is confident that Astana is “now listening to us, and they are with us.”
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.