The president of Kyrgyzstan, Mr Almazbek Atambayev, has signed into law a bill which increases the maximum prison sentence for bride kidnapping from three to seven years. If the kidnapped girl is younger than 17 (the minimum legal age for marriage), the punishment is up to ten years. Equality Now has been supporting our Kyrgyz partners in this campaign over the past year. The next step is to strategise with them on how to ensure that the law is comprehensively implemented and that the rights of women and girls are properly protected.
In 2009, on her way home from university, Vulkan, a young Kyrgyz woman, was abducted by a man and imprisoned in his house. When she tried to escape, a relative of the "groom" threatened that Vulkan would be cursed if she dared step over the threshold to leave. Vulkan now reluctantly lives with her abductor as his wife, having been forced to give up university and any thought of a job. She is determined not to allow any sons she may have to kidnap a bride. Meanwhile, Ainura, kidnapped in 2010, was told by her mother "you must stay here otherwise you dishonour me and yourself". Aziza's husband regularly raped and beat her and prevented her from leaving the house or seeing her family. Ready to commit suicide, she finally managed to escape only to be found by her husband who publicly beat her and left her naked in the street. Aziza currently lives with her mother and brother. For some victims, the process can be too much to bear. In 2010, two young women tragically committed suicide in the Issyk-Kul Province after being kidnapped and forced into marriage.
Bride kidnapping violates the fundamental human rights of women. It leads to rape, forced marriage, servitude and denial of education and other opportunities. Working to end it will require both careful consideration of the obstacles preventing kidnapped women from accessing justice and stronger public campaigns promoting the law and women's equality generally.
According to the Forum of Women's NGOs of Kyrgyzstan, up to 50% of marriages of ethnic Kyrgyz women in some villages take place against their will as a result of bride kidnapping. Sadly, societal pressures and common threats of violence from the kidnapper and his family mean that victims are often too afraid to report the crime and are forced to stay with their kidnappers. Some parents agree to accept money and gifts from the kidnapper in exchange for a promise not to go to the police. The stigma attached to an unmarried girl spending a night in the kidnapper's house is often enough for her to submit. In those cases that do make it to the police, women's rights activists have found in the past that police have refused to register a complaint or investigating officials have not pursued, or have delayed, investigations so that the case does not reach court.
We urge criminal justice agencies, including the police, prosecutors and judges, to fully implement and enforce the strengthened law and to address bride kidnapping as a violation of a woman's rights rather than a valued tradition to be preserved. Legal advice should be freely available to affected women. This is particularly crucial in rural areas where the majority of bride kidnapping cases occur and where few women are aware of - or can access - their fundamental legal rights.