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Kyrgyzstan: Domestic Violence -- Tradition Or Crime?

By Bermet Egemberdieva Kyrgyz women in traditional costume at a festival in Bishkek in May (RFE/RL) At least 17 women have died in Kyrgyzstan in the past two years at the hands of physically abusive husbands. It is a sad reminder that many Kyrgyz women are unable to escape the horrors of domestic violence. Statistics from the country's crisis shelters -- where many of the most serious cases end up -- suggest that 80 to 90 percent of Kyrgyzstan's victims of domestic violence are women.

BISHKEK, June 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Ainura says she never imagined married life could become such a nightmare. Or that she would have to suffer through so much in two years of life together.

She was building a home and a future with a man whom she calls her husband, although she says her marriage was never officially registered. But he soon began to criticize and beat Ainura on a regular basis.

'In The Beginning...'

"In the beginning, it was all good -- until we got married," Ainura says. "Oftentimes, he was just jealous. It started after we got married, and got worse after I got pregnant. When he would leave for work, he started locking me inside our house. He broke our home telephone and, still, after coming back from work, he would start asking questions about visitors. I answered, 'Who could come when the door was locked?' He began to search for reasons to swear at me -- he even confessed that on the way home he would plan on what he could complain about. For example, if dinner wasn't ready or clothes not ironed or washed, and so on."

And that's when the beatings began, she says.

"He beat me badly, kicked [me] -- even when I had our son in my arms," she says. "Our son was very scared afterward, and even when my husband was talking loudly, [our son] would start crying hysterically."

To Ainura, it was clear that her husband was trying to turn her into his property, rather than his wife.

"I was just a slave to him," she says. "I cooked, cleaned, washed, [and] looked after our child. And when he came home, I begged him not to beat me."

The young couple lived together with her husband's relatives. To Ainura's surprise, they never intervened to stop a beating or to discourage her husband's cruel treatment.

"The last time, he beat me and kicked me in the kidneys -- it was very painful," Ainura says. "I cried and ran out of the room. As I was running out, I saw his brother and sister sitting and silently observing in the next room."

'A Part Of Our Tradition'

How is it that seemingly typical families can stand by in silence and watch a young woman being savagely beaten by her husband? Perhaps society considers such violence acceptable.

"Men have beaten their wives since the ancient times," a young man named Sabyr who live in Bishkek said. "These actions became a part of our culture and traditions."

Does Sabyr beat his own wife?

Victims of domestic violence in Kyrgyzstan (Sezim)

"Yes, I do -- two or three times a month," he said. "I don't want to do it, but sometimes it just happens on its own. They talk too much, [or they] complain, and sometimes it has to be done -- just as a warning to them."

Another man, Samat, says he has never raised a hand against his wife. But he adds that he considers that an option.

"I think that couples need to understand each other," Samat said. "A husband and a wife -- both should be trying to create a peaceful atmosphere in their home. Beating is just too much. But there are times when women behave in a way that makes their husbands beat them. Those men's actions can be justified. But obviously men should try to explain everything through talking."

Another man, Askar, says he fears the effect that such violence can have on children.

"I am against domestic violence," Askar said. "If a wife and her husband fight at home, what kind of a child will grow up in such a family?"

'Who Will Take Care Of My Child?'

Ainura eventually decided she had had enough of her husband's abuse. After a brutal beating, she sought the help of a doctor and eventually left home. She says her maternal instincts prompted that difficult decision. Ainura felt that she needed to be healthy and strong for the sake of her 1-year-old son.

Wherever Ainura might end up, she thought, it would be better for herself and her baby.

"I thought: 'What is going to happen if he kills me one day? If I die, who will take care of my child?' And this feeling saved me," Ainura said. "I realized that my son needs me."

With no parents or other close relatives to turn to, Ainura focuses her attention and her energies on her child.

After leaving the home of her abusive husband and his compliant family, Ainura sought shelter at a crisis center in Bishkek. The Sezim crisis center is now their home, although it is difficult to say for how long. In addition to food and shelter, Ainura receives psychological counseling and legal advice.

In The Crisis Center

The shelter's director, Byubyusara Ryskulova, says the number of women turning to Sezim for help is increasing every year. The center recently sponsored a survey on domestic violence in which two out of three respondents claimed to have been the victims of domestic violence. Ryskulova places much of the blame on the way children in Kyrgyz society are raised.

Sezim crisis center director Byubyusara Ryskulova (RFE/RL)

"From a very young age -- in kindergarten, in school, and then in university -- we have to teach everyone that all members of society are equal," Ryskulova said. "Everyone should know their rights and know how to defend them and not violate the rights of the others."

Counselors from the crisis center are trying to determine whether Ainura's husband can be taken to court for his abuse and forced to meet his obligations to his wife and child. The task is made more difficult by the fact that Ainura and her husband never officially registered their marriage.

But still, Ainura says she is happy to have escaped what she describes as a life of "slavery." She wants to find a job and be a good mother to her son.

And while she remains dependent on the shelter for the time being, Ainura talks about plans and hopes for her and her baby's future.

Meet The Correspondent

Meet The Correspondent
RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondent Bermet Egemberdieva (RFE/RL)

BERMET EGEMBERDIEVA is 23 years old, a lawyer by education. She joined RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service in September 2006 and now specializes in social and civic themes. She hosts the weekly program "Society And Your Rights," which is targeted toward a youth audience. asked Egemberdieva to share some of her thoughts about the making of this feature on domestic violence.

'HUMILIATED IN THEIR OWN FAMILIES': Usually as a journalist I try to keep some distance from my work -- to leave my work at work. But while I was working on this story, I found myself constantly thinking about the fate of this woman and, especially, about her child. I wanted to meet her again -- this time, not as a journalist but as a person who was ready to do something to help somehow. Now the shelter is trying to get in touch with her and put us back into contact.
Of course, I try to be absolutely objective and not to judge people who think that beating women is perfectly normal. But after I had finished this story, I sat down and listened to it -- not as the author of the piece, but as a listener. That is when some completely different feelings arose in me -- a feeling of rage, of outrage for women who are being humiliated in their own families by the people who are closest to them. To be honest, it took all my effort to conceal my indignation and, even, hatred for those people who not only were indifferent to this subject but who actually advocated domestic violence.
But I also think that women contribute to this. To some extent, they enable men to continue to oppress them. At some point, a person has to be strong, decisive, and to stop constantly feeling sorry for oneself. Having studied the law, I know that our legislation completely guarantees the rights of woman and protects them from domestic violence. But women simply don't use this protection. Maybe it is true that many women are physically weaker than men, but this is no reason to oppress them, to destroy families and people's lives.

Other stories on domestic violence and women's rights:

Croatia: A Human Trafficking Victim Speaks With RFE/RL

Self-Immolation Of Kurdish Women Brings Concern

Self-Immolation Of Women On The Rise In Western Afghanistan

Central Asian Women’s Rights Groups Fight Gender Violence

Women's Conference Sees Progress On Rights Overshadowed By Violence


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