This is a guest post by Altynai Myrzabekova, a journalist based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
Meerim Turganbaeva was 18 years old and had just finished high school when she was kidnapped by an acquaintance – whom she had only met once – and his friends. Meerim’s new spouse was from the next village over, Kaptal-Aryk, in Issyk-Kul region.
“My father was against it initially, he wanted to take me back. But then my mom and grandmother told him that I would need to get married eventually,” Meerim commented. “They said it is better to stay than return home after being kidnapped.”
Meerim, now is 23, has a four year old son. He lives with her parents in the village, while she works in the capital, Bishkek. According to Meerim, the first three months were “incredibly” difficult at the house of her new spouse, mainly because it was “a bolt from the blue” and she had not been prepared for such a life right after graduation from high school.
She left when her mother-in-law, with whom a new family stayed, for over a year hounded her for not being capable of doing the housekeeping; in addition now she knew her husband, seven years her senior, was a drinker.
Meerim is one of many Kyrgyz women whose marriage was not officially registered, and consequently is not defended by the government. Most bride kidnapping marriages are simply negotiated before a mullah.
Now, if a new bill on toughening penalties on bride kidnapping passes the third reading and is signed by President Almazbek Atambaev, a prospective groom who kidnaps a woman can be sentenced up to seven years in prison. In the case of forcing a woman under 18 into marriage – one can get up to ten years. After long deliberation and an initial rejection during the first reading, 63 out of 75 deputies present at the session voted to adopting the relevant amendments to the Criminal Code. Before, Article 155, provided that abduction in order to marry a woman against her will or forcing her to continue with cohabitation was punishable by a fine and deprivation of liberty up to three years. Recently the deputies were highly criticized by the journalists and activists who noted that even for stealing cattle a criminal could get more time behind bars than for kidnapping a woman– 11 years of imprisonment. Now, if the bill becomes law, the punishment for the crime will be equated to the time of sentence, which is provided for all the other types of kidnapping people.
However, the head of the fund Help Women’s Center, Aigul Alymkulova,says that it happens extremely rarely when kidnapped women or her relatives go to the police, mainly because they do not see it as a criminal act.
“There are many obstacles for it [addressing law enforcement authorities]. After being abducted, women cannot physically relocate and do not have an opportunity to address the police,” she said. “Secondly, by this age, it is unlikely that they [women] have any experience of applying to prosecutors. They are emotionally not prepared for that and they simply do not know how to. Many people, including their parents,have no idea that it is a criminal act.”
According to Alymkulova, most of the people also do not believe that the law enforcement authorities can actually do something to defend them.“There is no guarantee that one will be defended and there is no guarantee that one [complainant] will not be accused of inappropriate behavior by the law enforcement authorities,” Alymkulova commented. She explained that in most of the cases it happens that families reach an agreement between each other without the intervention of a third party.
In fact, there are different forms of bridekidnapping (“Ala Kachuu”), ranging from consensual, staged abduction, to violent non-consensual kidnapping.
The coordinator of the project “Family relationship problems” Suiun Kurmanova explains that besides the national tradition bridekidnapping has socio-economical roots – it is common when a man from an indigent family kidnaps a woman in order to avoid the payment of “Kalym” (dowries for bride’s parents) and wedding expenses. In this case kidnapping has several measures of economical components and makes it easy and beneficial for both sides.
“It [the bridekidnapping] is usually carried out towards more vulnerable women not from wealthy families, you never hear stories when girls from families who possess a high status in the society, or deputies’ daughterswere kidnapped,” Alymkulova explained.
It rarely happens that a culprit convicted of a bride abduction is sentenced and actually goes to the prison. However, a recent bridekidnapping case in Issyk-Kul region ended up with an offender being sentenced to six years. According to the Kyrgyz ombudsman office, the offender would not be sentenced if the kidnapped 20 year old Yrys Kasymbai kyzy did not commit a suicide the day after she was abducted and forced to marry. Twice previously divorced, 34 year old Shaimbek Imankulov, abducted her and subjected her to sexual violence after they got the “Nikah” against her will. The case caused storm of debates in the local social networks, mainly because it was the toughest sentence ever sustained on bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan.
However, the head of the Help Women’s Center does not think that the law itself will help since “many laws are not being executed.” If the bill is passed, it will only be the first step to introduce a more adequate punishment for the offense that might increase responsibility of men practicing bridekidnapping.
“It is extremely important to make an information “wave.” People should hear about it [the bill], so that they can use it. If women are aware that there will be such a law, then hopefully such criminal acts will decrease,” she said.
According to Freedom House research conducted in 2011, in Talas 45 percent of 400 men and women age 16 to 60 surveyed did not know that the bride kidnapping was a crime. In Karakol, out of 255 surveyed, 17 percent did not have an idea that it is a criminal act.
In a report in late 2011, Bishkek-based Open Line NGO estimated that between 11,500 and 16,500 girls were kidnapped every year. The majority of cases go unreported. According to the Kyrgyz ombudsman office, last year police registered 68 cases of bride kidnapping which is only a fraction of those who have overcome their fear and decided to press charges.
Photo: “I’m a Feminist, I’m against violence” by Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ