BISHKEK -- In the space of a single month, three Kyrgyz women from different walks of life killed themselves in the northeastern Issyk-Kul region in separate cases linked to domestic violence.
Among them was Aruuzat, a 33-year-old schoolteacher from the city of Karakol who died in the hospital on December 29 after consuming a fatal dose of vinegar.
In a WhatsApp message sent from her deathbed, Aruuzat told her colleagues that she had decided to end her life because her family wanted her to reconcile with her abusive husband despite being beaten by him.
Aruuzat, a mother of three, also sent photos of what she said was her bruised body after the latest abuse at the hands of her spouse.
They don’t get any support from their relatives, and they also fear disgrace in society. Therefore, most of them go back to their abusive husbands in the end."-- Marina Lichanyu, Karakol’s Center for Rehabilitation and Support
Her colleagues told RFE/RL they had been aware of her situation but that she didn’t want them to report her husband to the police.
“She had told us about the beatings. She said if she ran away, her husband would find her using the phone geolocation and torture her even more,” Aruuzat’s colleague and friend, Nazira, told RFE/RL. “She was terrified of her husband.”
It was only after Aruuzat’s death that her colleagues reported to police about the domestic abuse she had suffered. Despite that, Aruuzat’s mother, siblings, and other relatives still remain silent on the subject.
It’s a long-standing tradition for abuse to be quietly accepted in Kyrgyzstan -- a country where divorce is shunned and women are encouraged to keep their marriages intact at almost any cost.
Impunity often remains a norm for domestic violence in the Central Asian country, where some women -- like Aruuzat -- end up paying the ultimate price.
But the Kyrgyz parliament is finally taking a decisive step to prevent families from putting pressure on the victims of domestic violence and to reconcile with their abusive spouses.
In an unprecedented move, the parliament passed a bill that bans such reconciliation if one of the parties in the marriage subjects his or her spouse to physical or mental abuse.
The bill also calls for harsher punishments for domestic violence.
Initiated by lawmaker Iskhaq Pirmatov, the amendments to the law on domestic violence were approved by parliament on the second reading on January 20.
Domestic violence has always been a hot topic in Kyrgyzstan, where police record thousands of cases every year. Thousands of other incidents of abuse go unreported.
In 2020, Kyrgyz police recorded 9,025 cases of domestic violence, a 65 percent rise compared to previous years.
But only about 940 of the cases were sent to courts, authorities say. In all other cases, the victims -- the majority of them women -- withdrew their complaints, telling police they had changed their minds.
'Crime Shouldn't Go Unpunished'
“There are many cases in which the victim opts for reconciliation under the pressure of the family. As a result, the case doesn’t go to court, while the victim still remains unprotected,” lawmaker Natalia Nikitenko said during the parliamentary debate.
“Now, the bill introduces new standards that prohibit the reconciliation of the parties if it puts one of the parties in harm’s way, or in cases in which one of the parties has already been subjected to violence,” Nikitenko said.
Current law states that if the victim withdraws a complaint, the police can drop the case. Under the new bill, however, police are required to launch a probe into suspected domestic violence even if the alleged victim takes back his or her initial complaint.
According to Nikitenko, “It will no longer be possible to hide [the crime] in the name of reconciliation.”
Some lawmakers spoke against the bill, arguing that marriage is a complex and delicate issue and that the best option for all sides is to save the union.
“Anything can happen in a family,” said lawmaker Kamchybek Zholdoshbaev, who advocated reconciliation at all costs. “Maybe we need to look for other solutions? For example, the [couple's] elders should be consulted, or a representative of the local councils should get involved.”
But parliamentarian Pirmatov insisted the victims cannot be protected if the perpetrators know they can get away with a crime under the pretext of reconciliation.
“Criminal behavior will continue if there is no punishment,” Pirmatov said.
The bill must pass a third reading and be signed by President Sadyr Japarov for the bill to become law.
Helping The Victims Isn't Always Easy
Just days after Aruuzat’s death in Karakol, another woman’s life was cut short by domestic violence in the nearby Tyup district.
Issyk-Kul regional police confirmed that 40-year-old housewife Gulmairam Taqtashova was strangled to death by her husband at home in the village of Dolon on January 9.
“Her husband, Aibek, had been drinking a lot lately,” Taqtashova’s sister told RFE/RL. “When Gulmairam got upset and moved to our parents’ home, Aibek begged her to come back. They reconciled, but soon after he killed her.”
Taqtashova’s husband subsequently committed suicide, leaving the couple’s four children without parents.
On January 12, another woman in Karakol killed herself amid allegations of domestic abuse. The 29-year-old mother of three worked at a local television station. Police said they were unable to open a criminal probe as there were no witnesses, no reports of a crime, and no complaints.
Women’s rights advocates in Kyrgyzstan have welcomed the latest legislation, but they say more is needed to protect domestic violence victims. They are urging the government to set up special crisis centers where abuse victims can seek help with counseling and rehabilitation to recover from the abuse and rebuild their lives. Some of the victims are in desperate need of shelter and employment.
There are only 17 crisis centers for women in a country of some 6.5 million people.
In reality, helping the victims is not always as straightforward as it might seem, said Marina Lichanyu, the coordinator of Karakol’s Center for Rehabilitation and Support, who has extensive experience working with domestic violence victims.
“About 80 percent of the women who approached our center for help don’t have adequate education," Lichanyu told RFE/RL. "Most of them were married young or ended up in marriage through the bride-kidnapping tradition."
“It’s difficult to find them jobs and create favorable conditions in which they could independently support themselves and raise their children. They don’t get any support from their relatives, and they also fear disgrace in society. Therefore, most of them go back to their abusive husbands in the end,” she added.
There have also been several dozen cases of men reporting abuse and cruel treatment at the hands of their wives.
Kyrgyz authorities say they are committed to helping the victims. This week, the government launched a hotline -- free phone line 117 -- for victims of domestic abuse to report a crime and seek help.