Aryyjan Karakol is a local community-based NGO in Karakol, Kyrgyz Republic, located on the southeast shore of Issyk-Kul Oblast. It was created in March, 2011 by Nurgul Shayakhmetova (Director). Presently, it is funded through international and local donors, but has developed immensely over the past two years, having collaborated on training projects that were funded by large international donors – the Norwegian Helsinki Fund, the US Embassy’s Women’s Economic Symposium, UN Women, IREX and Soros Foundation – as well as small Peace Corps grant initiatives – USAID’s Small Program Assistance (SPA), the Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP) and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). What originally started as a women’s rights organization that provided counsel (a 24-hour crisis hotline) to women who are victims of domestic abuse, bride kidnapping and property rights violations; and trainings to local village women on their rights as citizens, has since expanded its overall scope and evolved into a gender equality organization, inclusive to youth and men in its training sessions. However, this project specifically targets women who are victims of Kyrgyz cultural practices, including bride kidnapping and domestic violence. To date, we have served over 5,000 men and women in Tong, Jety-Oguz, Ak-Suu and Tyup Rayon villages in the Kyrgyz Republic through our human rights, civic engagement and gender equality training sessions.
Our goal in this specific project is to provide women, most of whom live in rural communities, with a place where they can seek refuge, should they be subjected to these contemporary forms of slavery. In doing so, we will offer them multiple forms of assistance, including humanitarian, social, psychological, and access to income-generating and medical assistance, in order to empower them to either gain their independence or improve their domestic situations.
Why is this necessary?
While Kyrgyzstan has a well-written legal code and a democratically elected government, the rule of law and the democratic system that supports it have not been extended to rural villages. Laws passed in Bishkek currently hold little sway over rural community members or the actions of local militia officers. The stability of Kyrgyzstan’s democracy is reduced when rural citizens do not feel their government is working for them and do not know how to effectively engage public officials.
The reaction public officials often have to domestic violence is a clear example of this problem. In March 2003, the government of Kyrgyzstan passed a law entitled the “Law on Social-Legal Protection from Domestic Violence.” Unfortunately, a parliament hearing in June 2008 revealed that enforcement of this law typically falls short. Many women, especially those living in villages, either do not know these laws exist or do not have access to the resources they would need to effectively utilize the legal system. Additionally, in many cases there is a severe lack of training as well as general awareness regarding domestic violence on the part of local law enforcement officials. Often women brave enough to step forward after being abused are simply turned away, leaving little incentive for others to come forward.
Much of the same information regarding domestic violence also relates to non-consensual bride-kidnapping (ala kachuu). Given the complexity and foreignness of this issue, it’s necessary to explain it in greater detail. Since the 1991 fall of the USSR, bride kidnapping has risen considerably in Kyrgyzstan. Though the typology of this phenomenon distinguishes between four different forms of bride abduction – ceremonial capture, mock bride theft, wife raiding and genuine bride theft – genuine bride theft is the most common. In this scenario, a man’s family sends him on this mission and awaits his return with his bride-to-be for a celebration. He and his friends then go to a city, or surrounding metropolitan town (in some cases, another village), spot a suitable young woman, and use either force or deception to abduct her and take her to his family’s home. In most cases, the woman has never met her captor, and likely, soon-to-be husband. Upon arrival at the young man’s home, the woman is brought into a room filled with ejays (elder women of the family), whose mission is to pressure the girl to accept by wearing a white veil over her head (signifying her willingness to marry), and write a letter to her parents, informing them of her choice. In some cases, the girl concedes immediately, realizing that she is powerless to these elderly women, as Kyrgyz tradition and etiquette demands that she show adequate respect to her elders. In other cases, she struggles. Some girls have struggled for as long as ten hours before relenting; but with each passing hour of resistance, her chances of staying throughout the night increase, at which point, she is assumed to have engaged in sexual activity and lost her virginity. Regardless of the duration, once she accepts the veil, the local mullah is alerted, comes over to acquire the new couple’s signatures, and according to Sharia Law, blesses the marriage as legitimate. Next comes the consummation, whereby most cases are considered rape, at least on the first night together.
This is where the flexible definition of the term “consensual” complicates the issue, because while she may have been “kidnapped” in the most traditional sense, by accepting the headscarf and signing the official documents, the woman has thereby granted her consent (though under intense duress). Additionally, while Kyrgyz Law deems non-consensual kidnapping illegal, there is little or no evidence of active enforcement, especially given that the victim’s signature extra-legally officiates her consent. In effect, unless she is able to escape or alert the police of her abduction, the only way out is to refuse acceptance. Successful refusal, however, conjures a myriad of new problems, including intense cursing and shaming employed by the boys family, unending whispers amidst the community (severely tarnishing her family name), and the possibility that potential suitors will think her at best, a disobedient woman; at worst, impure and tainted. All these are but a few of the pressures that a woman must consider throughout the decision-making process. This would explain why those who successfully resisted constitute a mere 17% of abductions.
Over the past two years alone, more than 24,000 cases of bride kidnapping were reported in Kyrgyzstan. As a result, multiple young women have committed suicide after being abducted and forced into marriage. Additionally, a 2003 survey of 1,322 Kyrgyz marriages indicated that as many as one half were a result of kidnapping, and at least one third of women within Kyrgyzstan were kidnapped without consent. However, these statistics are not only skewed and lowered by women who officially conscript the act, but also potentially tampered. In the past year, UN Women reported that as many as 70-80% of marriages were a product of non-consensual kidnapping.
Legally, both domestic violence and ala kachuu are in clear violation of both Kyrgyz domestic laws and a woman’s inalienable rights. Article 1 of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, states, “’violence against women’ means any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” According to Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “women of full age have the right to marry…equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. All marriages shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” Article 4 stipulates that, “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude.” This is where the issues start to meld together, as ala kachuu has implications of domestic violence. Kyrgyz law defines domestic violence as “any intentional act by one family member directed towards another family member if such act limits (the) victim’s legal rights and freedoms, inflicts physical or mental suffering and causes moral harm; or contains a threat to the physical or mental development of a minor member of the family.” Bride-kidnapping is clearly illegal according to Kyrgyzstan’s criminal code. Article 155 of the criminal code states, “Forcing a woman to marry or to continue a marriage or kidnapping her in order to marry without her consent will be punished under the law.” Yet, while Article 155 was recently entered into law in February, 2013 (and is punishable for up to 7 years in prison), there is still little to no signs of enforcement. Bride-kidnapping still occurs on a regular basis with alarming consequences, including rape, domestic violence and suicide. Thus, until this archaic and illegal practice is permanently removed from Kyrgyz society, women require a place where they can escape the societal, familial and cultural pressures that bind them to accept with this practice as a normal part of life.
Presently, we have raised $10,000.00 from the UN Voluntary Fund to End Contemporary Forms of Slavery, but still require an additional $15,000.00. These additional funds will allow us to fully purchase the property (a 4-bedroom apartment in Karakol City), furnish it, and fund its operation indefinitely. With your help, we can make this dream a reality, and provide the women of Issyk-Kul oblast with a place where they can seek refuge, receive psychological and legal counsel, develop new life and professional skills, and learn how to take the next steps toward acheiving their independence and self-determination.