Kyrgyzstan has been accused by the United Nations for failing to protect victims and adequately prosecute perpetrators of bride-kidnapping. Photo: Gazvbubu Babayarova.

Stolen, Enslaved and now my Wife

In Kyrgyzstan, a girl is kidnapped every 40 minutes and forced into a marriage with her kidnapper. Now as #MeToo has spread around the globe, Kyrgyz women and girls are speaking out to end this practice.

Bride-kidnapping has had a long history in Kyrgyzstan and is still a prevalent marriage tradition. This is as it sounds. A man kidnaps an unmarried young woman, often from the streets, bundles her into a car and takes her to be his wife. To legitimize the criminal act the perpetrator generally asks an imam or other authoritative figures to conduct a wedding ceremony.

Once taken to the perpetrators family home, this situation gives the woman or girl two options. Either to remain in the forced union – most often exposed to sexual violence, exploited for her labor and become a victim of oppression for the rest of her wedded life. Or to escape at the risk of revenge violence from her kidnapper and face stigma and shame from her community and sometimes family for leaving the forced marriage. Both these options often position these girls and women at risk of much higher rates of suicide.

Despite harsher laws introduced in 2013, as an attempt to deter this cultural practice, it still takes place. The United Nations most recent reports state that 13.8% of women under the age of 24 are coerced into marriage in Kyrgyzstan. The failure for the Kyrgyzstan’s government to protect women and girls from these kidnappings and uphold their rights is glaringly obvious.

A United Nations report from September 2018 found that the Kyrgyz state has systematically failed to enforce existing laws criminalizing bride kidnapping. Kyrgyzstan’s political authorities acknowledge these harmful practices, but do not push state institutions to investigate and prosecute perpetrators for cases of bride kidnapping or related sexual violence. This leaves these women in a position of injustice, where perpetrators remain unprosecuted and women’s rights are continually threatened and violated.

Kidnapped brides are at a much higher risk of violence by their kidnapper and his family members, systematic humiliation and economic dependence. The future of these women often is subject to control and gender inequality where they are denied the right to continue education and forced into caretaker roles.

In May last year, Burulai, a 20-year-old woman was left alone with her kidnapper who violently stabbed her to death inside a police station. This incident sparked national outrage and highlights the extent to which authorities operate under a patriarchy and fail to uphold the law. Clearly the shortcomings of the state have come at a huge cost. Today, the social movement to end bride kidnapping and gender based violence in Kyrgyzstan is bigger than ever. The campaigns and protests following Burulai’s murder have continued and it’s Kyrgyz women in the front line, standing together, calling for the state to take action.

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