Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan: 11,800 girls kidnapped each year, 2,000 raped. "In our society, the man is always right." (Kidnapping victim)
Imagine a country where, on average, every 40 minutes a girl is kidnapped for the ostensive purpose of marriage: that is 32 girls per day, for an approximate total of 11,800 kidnapped girls per year. Welcome to Kyrgyzstan, where this has been the grim reality of countless women for decades.
Although precise statistics are difficult to come by, it has been calculated that half of all married Kyrgyz women have been "stolen," as jargon has it, by their future husband -- with about one-third of all marriages being nonconsensual. In the countryside, forced marriages account for a hefty 57 percent of the total. It is no surprise then that, while 92 percent of all kidnapped women end up marrying their abductor, 60 percent of those marriages will eventually lead to divorce.
To supporters, Ala Kachuu -- roughly translated as "grab and run" -- is the quintessential Kyrgyz tradition: a nomadic people, the Kyrgyz have always snatched their wives riding on the back of a horse, common wisdom goes. Women’s rights activists and researchers beg to differ.
The main source for Kyrgyz customs is the national epic, Manas. But if you read the entire Manas, nowhere in it does the hero kidnap his wife or even reference the practice. Actually, according to our research, we think the practice of bride kidnapping started in the 19th century and didn't become popular until the 1940s and 50s, when Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union.
Thus spoke Russell Kleinbach, professor of Sociology at Philadelphia University and deputy director of the Kyz Korgon ("Girls' Shelter") Institute.
Until the second half of the last century, bride kidnapping was practiced as a form of elopement to counter the opposition of the young couple’s families to the wedding. Some such instances still occur, from which derives the romanticizing of a practice that, apart from violating women’s basic human rights, exacts a heavy toll on their psychological and physical well-being. Of the 11,800 kidnapped brides each year, more than 2,000 are also raped.
Some argue that poverty has been a potent factor behind the exponential postindependence growth of this phenomenon. As Kyrgyz weddings cost a fortune, due to the kalym (dowry) and the party, the groom’s family enjoys a better negotiating position as the dowry becomes "usually around a third lower" after the kidnapping. However, in a survey conducted with 268 victims throughout the country in April-June 2010, the NGO Open Line found that only 4 percent of respondents believe that economic gain is behind this practice. Most contend, instead, that it is due to "love at first sight" (26 percent), fear of rejection (23 percent) or a bet between friends (22 percent). These results reveal the power game that lies behind the tradition myth.
a) Should I stay or should I go?
Women often stay with their future husband-cum-abductor due to the crushing social pressure brought to bear on them. This often translates into family pressure, as the family themselves come under intense scrutiny from the community. In reality, bride kidnapping is not the result of a whimsical act by one individual: first, the groom-to-be has to plan it carefully with his extended family. Then he carries it out with some friends-accomplices aided by few close relatives (paradoxically mostly women) and, at times, some of the prospective bride’s own friends or family members.
Yet, the number of court cases initiated against perpetrators is dishearteningly low compared to the scale of the problem. Convictions are rarer still. In a 2008 report, the Forum of Women’s NGOs stated that, out of a total of 35 cases brought to court in the first half of 2006, 15 resulted in convictions.
Official statistics offer the same dismal story: 19 convictions in 2010; 28 in 2011; and 25 in 2012.
The stigmatization associated with rebelling against what most people still consider a tradition often cows the girl and her family into not pressing charges. In the few occurrences where a case goes to court, rarely is a verdict reached because a bargain is struck beforehand via either compensation money or threats, or a combination of both.
The result: only one in every 1,500 abduction cases ends with a sentence. In three separate incidents between 2010 and 2012, three young women from the north-eastern Issyk-Kul province committed suicide after being kidnapped and raped. And yet, only one perpetrator was sentenced to six years in prison for incitement to suicide, rape, and forced marriage. Quite apart from the leniency of the verdict in view of the charges, this is a rare exception to the pervasive climate of impunity.
b. Where is the law?
Bride kidnapping was made illegal in the Criminal Code of postindependence Kyrgyzstan in 1994. Articles 154 and 155 of the Kyrgyz Criminal Code define the financial and criminal liabilities for people who "abduct a woman with the purpose of marriage."
On 25 January 2013, President Almazbek Atambaev signed a bill into Law n. 9, which amended Article 154 and Article 155 of the Criminal Code increasing the maximum prison sentence for bride kidnapping to seven years, and 10 years where the bride is a minor. The amendments came in the wake of a mobilization of grassroots and civil society organizations which picked up momentum in 2012 and coalesced into Campaign 155, a "national campaign to eradicate the practice of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan."
On 10 December 2013, at a full-day seminar organized for Human Rights Day in Bishkek, Aygul Konoeva, deputy director of the Women Support Center -- sounded cautiously optimistic: in 2013, our monitoring projects in the provinces of Talas, Issyk Kul, Naryn and Batken indicate that the idea of bride kidnapping being a crime is slowly starting to sink in people’s minds. Once we have new statistics, if the new law is working -- wonderful. But if it isn’t, we’ll ask for Article 155 to be cancelled, so that all kidnapping cases will have to come under Article 123.
The struggle continues.