In June 2010, the south of Kyrgyzstan went through the bloody so-called “inter-ethnic war” between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. The conflict took the lives of hundreds of people and paralyzed the livelihoods of thousands of others, leaving them with no shelter, food or protection. Though much has been written about the clash, the central role of women during the conflict and their participation in the post-conflict situation has been neglected. A variety of women’s status markers, such as age, ethnicity, region and economic potential, play a significant role in political and social (non)-mobilization. The traditional gender roles for women prescribed by Kyrgyz and Uzbek social norms are challenged by other contextual realities, ranging from female activism to women’s silence. Unfortunately, the experiences of these women remain invisible and untold.
In the first article in this series I will look at the non-mobilized group of women, who were victims in a conflict in which they did not participate, and whose experiences have been neglected because of cultural taboos on discussing violence against females. These are women from different ethnicities (Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Russian), whose bodies were used as a weapon by adversary groups with an aim to assert their power, take revenge, dishonor and punish. This article will tell the stories of two of these women who were raped during the conflict–each from a different ethnicity–whose stories show the way that silence is their only coping mechanism, that society punishes them for speaking out and that the state fails to protect them or even recognize their suffering.
Many reports on the June 2010 conflict document the way that accounts of rape became a major trigger that intensified inter-group animosity and perpetuated sexual violence against women in supposed revenge attacks. The numbers of females subjected to sexual crimes during these days still remain under-reported by local authorities, as well as by the survivors themselves. As of today the Kyrgyz government has not taken any measures to punish the perpetrators of sexual violence and continues to silence the facts about these crimes. In accordance with this, the Kyrgyz government neither acknowledged nor granted adequate compensation for the survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.
In the aftermath of the June conflict, the provisional government of Kyrgyzstan declared that all victims would receive compensation from the state. The government issued special decrees granting financial compensation from the state’s budget for affected entrepreneurs (50,000 KGS/appx $1,000), injured people (500,000 KGS/appx. $10,000) and for the loss of a family-member (1 million KGS/appx. $20,500). However, for the Kyrgyz government, the term “victim”, in its conventional notion, means mainly male “fighters” who died or were injured during the conflict, but not individuals who were raped or sexually abused.
What makes a raped women less a “victim” than a man who was injured or died? Why have rape survivors not been entitled to equal acknowledgement and compensation? The state’s patriarchal ideology of honor and shame deprived female victims of gender-based violence of fair compensation and justice. Although the social stigmatization of gender-based violence is strongly enrooted in Kyrgyz society, this does not grant the state the right to brush off this issue and not even attempt to address it in the fair way. The Kyrgyz state failed to serve justice to victims of gender-based violence during the June 2010 conflict.
The story of Burul (name changed) is just one example out of many and vividly shows the coping mechanisms of rape survivors. That coping mechanism is silence. But this silence does not exist in Burul’s mind. Her mind is full of noise from that night when she was raped. The noise stops her from sleeping at night. The last time Burul visited a doctor, he told that her nerve cells are damaged and prescribed one week of medical treatment. But Burul cannot leave her business. She runs a hotel. During the conflict, she and her two children stayed in the hotel. After hearing the noises of the approaching unrest, she hid her children on the roof. But Burul did not manage to climb up herself to join her children, because one of the men invading the hotel noticed her. He grabbed her, beat her, closed her mouth with his hand and raped her.
Burul never told anyone about this, neither her family because of the shame this would put on her, nor the police because she does not trust them. She said that her attackers also raped other Kyrgyz and Russian girls who worked with her in another part of the building. These girls never came back to work. But Burul stayed, took a loan from the bank, renovated the hotel and continued running it in spite of the memories that night.
The story of Minovat (name changed) demonstrates the social repercussions that can explain why rape survivors may silence their experiences. Minovat was among three women who were kidnapped from their homes and taken to a strange house where they were raped for two days. On the third day, she was thrown out of a car into a field. When she reached home, her husband and his family asked why she disappeared and where she had been. She told me that she could not come up with another story and so told her family what happened during those two days, hoping for their understanding. In the beginning, the family expressed sympathy–until the rumors about Minovat began circulating in the village. One week later, her husband and mother-in-law kicked her out of the house, claiming that she had brought shame to their family. They also prohibited her from seeing her children.
Both Burul and Minovat did not ask and did not receive any help because their experiences were detrimental to the honor of their families and of their men, as endorsed by the patriarchal state and its societal norms. The suffering of these women is neither officially nor culturally recognized as an injury, which is why they have been excluded from being acknowledged as victims. Although the Kyrgyz state’s reports on the 2010 conflict deny such incidents and disregard them as simple rumors, in fact everyone who lived through those days knows of such women. Justice has to be served for the women who suffered, first by the state and society acknowledging these crimes, and then by punishing the perpetrators instead of their victims.