Although child marriage and “bride kidnapping” are illegal in Kyrgyzstan, both practices still exist in parts of the country. An initiative from a UN-backed programme is finally leading to a change in attitudes, and a decline in these harmful practices.
Every year, according to official government figures, between seven and nine thousand very young girls get married in Kyrgyzstan, and about 500 girls aged 13 to 17 become mothers.
Girls still run the risk of falling prey to such practices as “ala kachuu”, which literally means “pick up and run away” in Kyrgyz. In other words, they are kidnapped and forced into marriage.
“The problem of early marriages in Kyrgyzstan is very acute”, says Byubyusara Ryskulova, a psychologist, and the director of ‘Sezim’ (‘Trust’ in Kyrgyz), the country’s first crisis centre, established 25 years ago to protect the rights of women and girls in difficult life situations, and provide them with temporary shelter, as well as legal and psychological assistance.
In the 25 years since the establishment of the centre, more than 45,000 women have used the hotline, and about 35,000 have received legal and psychological advice.
According to Ms. Ryskulova, the continued existence of these practices can partly be explained by the growing influence of religion, and unemployment and poverty, particularly in rural areas.
“The legal age of marriage is 18, and kidnapping of girls is criminalized. Unfortunately, these laws are not always respected. Instead of an official marriage, people often hold a religious ceremony in a mosque, which is called ‘nikah’.”
“Families in the villages no longer have seven or eight children, but it is not easy for parents to raise four or five children. Many of them seek to give their daughters to wealthier families. As a rule, the parties agree among themselves, and everything happens quietly”.
“However, later on life, when they’re no longer able to withstand domestic violence, women turn to us for help. That’s when we find out that they were married against their will, stolen and married secretly,” says Ms. Ryskulova.
The law allows the rite of "nikah" to be held in mosques only after the couple reaches the age of 18, and if they are underage, the penalty is imprisonment for a term of three to five years. As for bride kidnapping, the law states that the punishment is a ten-year jail term.
Even so, it is extremely rare that all the participants in such a “deal” are brought to justice. “It’s easy to write a law, but it must also be implemented,” says Ms. Ryskulova. “Currently, we are monitoring about eight criminal cases related to the rape of young girls”.
Most of the cases are concentrated in three, mainly conservative, regions in the south of the country: Osh, Jalabad and Batken. Darika Asylbekova, the head of the Ak Zhurok (Pure Heart) crisis center in Osh, says that the number of early marriages has grown since 2010.
“Parents marry off their daughters from the ninth grade. They are afraid that, after graduating from school, and leaving for the city, their daughters will “spoil” and, then, will not be able to get married.”
As a result, girls, having plunged into family life, cannot attend school. Household duties fall on their shoulders, then pregnancy, and childcare. Any chance of getting an education or a profession disappears and, as housewives, they are completely dependent on their husbands.
This year alone, about 1,500 young women turned to Ak Zhurok for help. They ask not only for temporary shelter, but also for support with employment, property division of property, and receiving alimony, because, as a rule, those who have not formalized the marriage are left with nothing.
Shame and guilt
However, even in the south, attitudes are changing. In rural areas, there are about 154 divorces per thousand marriages, while in cities this figure is 2.4 times higher.
The author of the popular Kyrgyz blog “A Girl's Dream”, 24-year-old Aigerim Almanbetova belongs to the modern generation of Kyrgyz women who are trying to understand the situation in which many of her peers find themselves.
“In my opinion, another reason for early marriages, apart from religion, is family upbringing. We have the mentality that a girl should get married as early as possible because, by age, she is already considered an old maid. So, women are under psychological pressure from childhood.
“Girls are constantly told that they will go to live with their husbands, that they must build a family, give birth to children. In which case, why spend money on her education,” Ms. Almanbetova continues.
She adds that they also have to contend with the cultural notion of shame, which leads many of them to stay with abusive husbands, and endure physical abuse for years. According to the blogger, there is a long overdue need in Kyrgyz society to change the ways that men are raised, starting from early childhood.
UN involvement leads to a decline in cases
However, more recently, there has been a decline in the number of early marriages, thanks to the preventive work of NGOs and government agencies, with the assistance of international organizations.
In January 2020, in partnership with the government of Kyrgyzstan, the European Union and the UN launched a multi-year country program as part of the global Spotlight Initiative to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls.
The program includes a set of measures in the field of policy and law-making: strengthening institutions, preventing violence, providing services to victims of violence, collecting quality data, and supporting the women's movement and civil society.
For empowered women such as Ms. Almanbetova, this is the right direction in which Kyrgyzstan should be travelling: “I am not against starting a family and I dream about it in the future. But the approach must be primarily the desire of the girl herself, and not her parents.
“The times when a woman is treated as a second-class person must be a thing of the past. This has become a serious brake on the development of our society”.