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Kyrgyzstan: Pressure Builds to Protect Women and Girls

On Anniversary of Woman’s Murder, Act to Halt Violence Against Women


Burulai Turdaaly kyzy’s portrait on a building at the medical college she attended in Bishkek, November 2018. © 2018 Gulzhan Turdubaeva/Radio Free Europe/RL

(Bishkek) – The failure of Kyrgyzstan’s government to prevent and punish violence against women and girls leaves them at risk of injury and even death, Human Rights Watch said today, a year after a man murdered a young woman he had kidnapped for forced marriage. Kyrgyzstan adopted a strengthened Family Violence Law in 2017, but weak enforcement of laws on violence against women and girls leaves them in jeopardy.

Public outcry followed the May 2018 killing of university student Burulai Turdaaly kyzy, 20, by Mars Bodoshev, 29, who abducted her for forced marriage, a practice known as “bride kidnapping.” After Burulai’s father reported her abduction – the second time Bodoshev had kidnapped her in two months – police stopped Bodoshev’s car and took them to a police station outside the capital, Bishkek. When police left the two in a room alone together, Bodoshev stabbed Burulai multiple times and reportedly carved her initials and those of the fiancé she had intended to marry into her skin. The killing spurred public pressure to tackle bride kidnapping, a practice some in Kyrgyzstan defend as “tradition” and which persists despite criminalization and toughened legislation.

“A year after Burulai’s murder, it’s outrageous that the government hasn’t done everything possible to enforce laws that could save women’s and girls’ lives,” said Hillary Margolis, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Passing laws is a good first step, but it is far from enough to ensure real protection.”

According to available government data, police registered 2,701 cases of domestic violence during the first three months of 2019. Two-thirds of all cases consisted of physical violence, but data on injuries or deaths resulting from domestic violence is missing, as is data on cases of bride kidnapping.

Human Rights Watch conducted research in Kyrgyzstan in April, interviewing 21 staff members of crisis centers and nongovernmental organizations and lawyers representing victims of violence, as well as two government representatives.

In a positive move, a “Code of Misdemeanors” introduced by the government in January 2019 includes a provision criminalizing domestic violence, which had routinely been addressed as an administrative rather than criminal offense. However, Human Rights Watch found that critical legislative gaps remain and authorities are not consistently or effectively enforcing measures to bolster protection for women and girls against violence, including the Family Violence Law and a 2016 law to curb child and forced marriage.

Inadequate enforcement of protection orders in cases of domestic abuse limits their effectiveness, as does uneven enforcement of laws to address bride kidnapping and child and forced marriage. Scarce government support for services for survivors of abuse leaves women and girls without a safety net.

Burulai’s killer was sentenced to 20 years while his friend who assisted in the kidnapping was given 7 years. More than 20 police officers were punished, including at least 4 who were dismissed, and 3 who were ordered in April by a court to pay a fine and compensation on grounds of negligence. However, people interviewed said many victims of domestic violence and bride kidnapping do not file complaints, and complaints that are filed often do not result in prosecutions or convictions.

In a 2015 report on domestic violence and bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, Call Me When He Tries to Kill You, Human Rights Watch documented the multiple barriers victims face in accessing justice, including pressure from their families and authorities to reconcile with abusers, and how a dearth of services leaves them with nowhere to turn.

The 2017 Family Violence Law includes provisions to improve rapid access to protection orders, but the system is cumbersome and poorly implemented, experts told Human Rights Watch. Lawyers said victims generally need support from nongovernmental organizations for their complaints to be heard. The head of an organization working on bride kidnapping said, “It is typical [for authorities] to say, ‘Oh, it is just another woman complaining about another man.’”

Service providers also said protection orders remain largely unenforced. “It doesn’t matter if you give it to every member of the family saying what he [the perpetrator] can’t do – it has no power,” said the director of a crisis center in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan’s largest city.

Impunity for domestic violence and bride kidnapping is an ongoing concern. Under the new Misdemeanor Code, the Criminal Code, and the Criminal Procedure Code, authorities can close cases following reconciliation between a victim and a perpetrator.

The government appears to have done little to establish or support medical, psychological, shelter, and legal assistance for survivors, as the Family Violence Law requires. Nongovernmental organizations provide almost all assistance, often with limited budgets. The director of an organization operating a Bishkek shelter said they often resort to desperate measures: “Every staff member contributes some money from her own salary for food for the [women and children at the] shelter.”

The government has not yet met a key requirement of the Family Violence Law: the appointment of an “authorized body” with the mandate to oversee coordination and implementation of domestic violence prevention and protection measures.

Kyrgyzstan’s government should immediately establish the oversight body and allocate it sufficient human and financial resources to perform this role effectively. It should also urgently bolster support for lifesaving services that allow women and girls to escape abuse. Authorities should ensure full implementation of the Family Violence Law and other legislation on violence against women and girls.

The government should monitor responses by law enforcement and judicial bodies to complaints of domestic violence and early and forced marriage, including the issuing and enforcement of protection orders and prosecution of cases. Widespread education and awareness-raising campaigns are needed to change behavior and combat harmful attitudes.

“Kyrgyzstan’s government cannot afford to shirk its responsibilities toward women and girls,” Margolis said. “It is leaving the door open for more women like Burulai to die while waiting for the laws’ promises to be fulfilled.”

For more information on violence against women in Kyrgyzstan, see below.

Violence Against Women, Girls

Internal Affairs Ministry data shows that police registered 2,701 cases of domestic violence during the first three months of 2019. Police registered 7,178 cases for all of 2018, more than half of which involved physical violence. Publicly available data does not specify the number of bride kidnapping cases reported or prosecuted.

The lack of comprehensive data on domestic violence and bride kidnapping is an ongoing problem. Government agencies appear to have used different iterations of the law as the basis for data collection, leading to some inconsistencies in reported data and its tabulation. Human Rights Watch has cited data reported by government, as is currently available.

In 2017, the government reported 31 cases of forced marriage, of which 25 involved women and 6 involved children, though it is unclear whether these were boys or girls. The same year, one case of “crimes against the family and minors,” which includes bride kidnapping, was concluded in criminal court, but information on the specific crime prosecuted is not provided. Data on child and forced marriages, including bride kidnappings, is limited because they are typically not registered with the government and authorities only know of cases if complaints are filed.

Women and girls in child and forced marriages are vulnerable to abuse by husbands or in-laws, and the nature of bride kidnapping can lead to isolation and make seeking help for domestic violence all the more difficult.

Kyrgyzstan’s government has taken steps to improve prevention, protection, and response regarding violence against women and girls. Measures include criminalization of domestic violence in the January 2019 Code of Misdemeanors, the adoption of a strengthened Law on Prevention and Protection Against Family Violence (Family Violence Law) in 2017, and the criminalization of religious marriages of children in 2016. The Ministry of Health and Ministry of Internal Affairs have issued internal instructions for applying the law, and the government has developed a gender equality strategy.

The Criminal Code prohibits abduction for the purpose of marriage, or bride kidnapping, as well as forced marriage. Bride kidnapping is punishable by five to seven-and-a-half years in prison, or up to 10 years if the victim is under 18. The Family Code sets the legal age of marriage at 18 – with possible exceptions for “valid reasons” – and stipulates that marriage requires both parties’ voluntary consent. The Family Violence Law’s basic principles specify preclusion of national customs and traditions that interfere with human rights and freedoms and facilitate family violence.”

The 2017 Family Violence Law covers psychological, economic, and physical violence as well as neglect and requires police to accept and investigate domestic violence complaints from anyone, not only the victim. To overcome political inertia, the law delineates responsibilities of multiple government agencies. However, critical gaps in the law and its implementation hamper its effectiveness.

Gaps in Law, Implementation

Family Violence Law

Kyrgyzstan’s government should expand the Family Violence Law’s definition of “family” to include unmarried partners, former partners, and relatives of current or former partners or spouses, regardless of whether they are cohabiting. It should also include current or former same-sex partners and their relatives.

Inconsistencies between the Misdemeanor Code and the Family Violence Law may exacerbate gaps in protection. The Misdemeanor Code, which takes precedence, refers to “temporary protection orders,” language from the previous Family Violence Law. The 2017 law refers to “protection orders” rather than “temporary” and “court-issued protection orders,” terminology used on police forms for taking complaints and issuing protection orders. Experts said that, in some cases, the inconsistent terminology has led police to stop issuing protection orders.

Two years after the Family Violence Law’s adoption, the government has yet to fulfil the law’s requirement to designate a body to oversee domestic violence prevention and protection activities, due in part to disagreement on responsibilities of government agencies. The body’s responsibilities include conducting research, collecting and analyzing data, and coordinating correctional programs for abusers.

Rosa Bekmatova, head of the Gender Unit at the Ministry of Labor and Social Development, said the ministry is the de facto lead agency, though it lacks the capacity to develop and promote the full scope of the law. “Domestic violence is about protection of human rights and ensuring security and order, which is under the Ministry of Internal Affairs,” she said. She raised concerns about the ministry’s scant human and financial resources. The Gender Unit currently has four employees.

Activists who pressed for the new Family Violence Law expressed disappointment at the government’s lackluster progress since 2017. “We can’t say nothing is being done,” said one activist. “But I would say the new law has not met our expectations. The government has not expressed and shown willingness to implement it.”

Religious Marriage Law

Criminal Code amendments in 2016 criminalized religious marriage ceremonies, or nikah, that involve a child in a move to curb child and forced marriages, which are often not registered with the state. The so-called Nikah Law allows for prosecution of religious authorities who perform child marriages, parents, or other adults who facilitate such marriages, and adults who marry children and carries a penalty of two to six-and-a-half years in prison.

In December 2016, the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan (Muftiyat) issued an order instructing imams not to conduct religious marriages with anyone under 18. However, the head of an Islamic organization working on women’s issues said that not all clerics back the law. “Officially, the religious authorities at the national level are supportive, but to say that male religious leaders are 100 percent supportive there are very few,” she said.

Although some people interviewed said they perceive a reduction in bride kidnappings and child marriages, partly due to fear of prosecution, no research or data is available. Some service providers note loopholes in the nikah law and problems for enforcement. Interviewees said many cases go unreported, such as when parents agree to the marriage or request nighttime ceremonies to avoid punishment. Some people seek out “unofficial” nikah ceremonies, one activist said: “Legal imams won’t do it because they know [the law], so people go and find someone who isn’t certified.”

In April, Kyrgyzstan’s government reported a total of 17 recorded violations of the Nikah Law since it came into effect, with 10 prosecutions. Eight people have been convicted and 22 received suspended sentences. It is unclear whether multiple defendants were convicted or sentenced for the same incident.

Following a 2018 inquiry into bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, the committee overseeing implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee), to which Kyrgyzstan is a party, found that the government’s actions amounted to grave and systematic rights violations, citing failure “to effectively investigate, prosecute and punish cases of bride kidnapping and related sexual violence.” The committee also said the government had not adequately implemented awareness-raising campaigns or addressed barriers to justice for victims.

Raising Awareness

Service providers and experts commended government efforts to increase awareness of laws on violence against women and girls but said it should do more to inform the public and tackle norms that foster impunity. “It is very surprising when we explain their rights [to them] and women say, ‘Do we really have this right? We can do this, like a man?’” said a staff member at a shelter in Osh.

Interviewees said Burulai’s killing shone a light on bride kidnapping in cities and rural areas alike but noted that the practice continues. “Bride kidnapping exists – it didn’t stop,” said the head of one women’s rights organization. “But we are hearing about it more. Since Burulai’s case, more people know what to do.”

However, many said the government should increase work to remedy weak knowledge of marital rights among women. “When we start discussing it, women say that if they had known [about laws on forced marriage] before, they would have taken a different approach to marriage,” said the leader of the Islamic organization.

Interviewees also said the government should act resolutely to combat attitudes and behaviors conducive to violence against women and girls. The director of a women’s rights organization compared government awareness-raising on violence against women to other promotional campaigns. “When the state wants to raise awareness on something, it can,” she said, citing attention to Kyrgyzstan’s hosting of the 2018 World Nomad Games. “They spent so much money publicizing it – why can’t they spend that much on violence against women?”

Interviewees said women and girls continue to face stigma if they divorce, escape a forced marriage, or are otherwise perceived as “breaking up the family.” They said that Burulai’s father’s decision to alert the police about her abduction illustrates some attitudinal shift but does not reflect the reality in many communities. “Until we have an aggressive information campaign, cultural norms will prevail: it’s someone else’s family, don’t interfere with someone else’s family affairs,” said one expert.

Lack of Services

State-funded medical, psychological, social, and legal services and emergency shelter remain largely unavailable for survivors of abuse, especially in rural areas, and are mainly provided by nongovernmental organizations.

Bekmatova, of the Labor and Social Development Ministry’s Gender Unit, said the ministry provided 3 million Kyrgyz soms (around US $43,000) to support five crisis centers in 2018, and that this will double in 2019. She said the ministry wants to increase the number of crisis centers it supports and broaden services, including by establishing correctional programs for abusers as required under the Family Violence Law.

Bishkek, a city of approximately one million, has only two shelters, both run by nongovernmental organizations, with a total of about 22 spaces for women and their children – far short of Council of Europe standards calling for one shelter space per 10,000 people. The southern city of Osh, with a population of around 300,000, also has two shelters run by nongovernmental groups. Only one shelter receives any national government funding.

Crisis centers – which offer survivors services, but not necessarily shelters – struggle to survive and receive little, if any, government support. At least one crisis center in Osh closed in 2016 due to lack of funding. A Bishkek crisis center director said the organization’s shelter is overcrowded and cannot meet demand. The organization has been operating a transitional home to help domestic violence survivors gain independence from their abusers, but it will soon close due to lack of funds.

Service providers and activists lauded the recent inclusion of domestic violence on a Ministry of Emergencies helpline but said the public is largely unaware of this. “As of now, there have been only around 200 calls on the helpline about domestic violence,” one expert said. “It’s a drop in the ocean.”

Protection Orders

The 2017 Family Violence Law mandates that police automatically issue a three-day protection order after confirming domestic abuse. A victim may request an extension of up to 30 days from police. Although service providers and activists say police are issuing more protection orders under the new law, they said that police do not issue them in every case.

Some service providers said issuing protection orders for three days is inadequate. “If the perpetrator is an abuser used to resorting to domestic violence regularly, for him a three-day protection order is nothing,” said the head of an association of crisis centers.

There is also concern about the burden on victims to request an extension. “I told the experts, ‘You sit in your offices and draft laws, but imagine a battered woman is given three days protection and in three days she has to go apply for an extension,’” said a crisis center lawyer in Bishkek. “She never will, because she is hiding somewhere. She is in no position to go to the police and ask.”

Internal Affairs Ministry data shows that police registered 2,701 cases of domestic violence and issued 2,623 protection orders between January and March 2019, with only 83 extended beyond 3 days. Of 7,114 protection orders in 2018, only 64 were extended. No data is available on the number of applications for extensions.

Protection orders may prohibit contact between the victim and her abuser, but this provision is rarely applied or enforced and, because women often live in their husband’s or in-laws’ homes, separation generally requires victims to stay at a shelter or with friends or relatives. Government data shows that all protection orders issued between January and March 2019 called for “prohibition of domestic violence” but none prohibited contact between abusers and their victims. No cases were registered for “failure to comply with a protection order” during this period. In 2018, the government reported 896 cases of “failure to comply with a protection order,” less than 13 percent of orders issued.

Sanctions for domestic violence under the new Misdemeanor Code only include a heavy fine or “corrective labor,” but not the option of detention that existed under the Administrative Code. Although detention was for only up to five days, Human Rights Watch interviewed survivors for its 2015 report who said it provided their only respite from abuse.

Impunity and Barriers to Justice

Human Rights Watch found that multiple barriers keep survivors of abuse from getting justice.

Although service providers said police are more likely to accept complaints than in the past, these generally stall unless victims are accompanied by a lawyer or crisis center worker. “A complaint might be registered, but it won’t go any further,” said an Osh crisis center staff member. Yet legal assistance remains rare. As one lawyer and expert said: “There aren’t many lawyers specializing in domestic violence in the country, and victims of domestic violence normally can’t afford lawyers.”

Service providers and lawyers said police and judges often dissuade victims from filing complaints, and pressure them to reconcile with their abusers and withdraw complaints. A Bishkek crisis center lawyer said this happens even when she accompanies victims. “Still, the police try to convince the woman not to file a complaint, saying, ‘We have a lot of other cases – severe cases – and just because you got a slap on the cheek, you want to file a complaint, and then you will withdraw it and it will be a waste of our time,’” she said. She said the situation is worse in rural areas, where domestic violence is widespread and victims do not report violence to the police: “Even when they do, it is the investigators who persuade them not to file a complaint, not to press charges.”

An Osh crisis center director cited a case in which medical workers alerted authorities about four pregnant girls, all of them in religious marriages. Ultimately, she said, no one was prosecuted. “The deputy head of the rayon [district] said, ‘Everything already happened, the four girls are already pregnant, so leave it,’” she said. “But he said in the future he would punish people.”

A 2016 report by the Kyrgyz Association of Women Judges and United Nations Development Programme on crimes against women and girls in Kyrgyzstan’s justice system found that, from their first contact with law enforcement, victims of gender-based crimes “have to convince investigators and courts that they suffered violence, initiate examinations, and [suffer] confrontation with suspects to prove they are telling the truth.” The report concludes that the legal system “re-victimizes them at all stages of interaction.”

While the Interior Ministry reported 2,701 registered domestic violence cases in the first three months of 2019, the Prosecutor General’s office reported that 2,964 domestic violence cases were initiated under the new Misdemeanor Code and 438 under the Criminal Code. The ministries use different iterations of the law as the basis for data collection resulting in inconsistent statistics on the number of cases registered.

Of 7,178 family violence cases registered in 2018, 369 serious criminal cases were initiated – approximately 5 percent. Another 4,963 cases – close to 70 percent – were initiated under the Administrative Code, including 2,344 for “domestic violence;” this includes 896 cases registered for failure to comply with a protection order. Available data does not indicate whether all initiated cases continued through to trial, or if some were closed before reaching trial.

Under the new Misdemeanor Code, the Criminal Code, and the Criminal Procedure Code, the authorities can close cases following reconciliation between a victim and an abuser. Data is not available on convictions for 2018, and the Ministry of Justice had not responded to a request for information from Human Rights Watch at this writing.

According to 2017 Justice Ministry data, 313 domestic violence cases were prosecuted under the Criminal Code and another 2,547 under the Administrative Code. The data does not show the outcome of these cases. But in 2017, there were 276 convictions for murder, 220 for intentional grievous bodily harm, and 86 for rape across Kyrgyzstan, some of which may have been domestic violence cases.

Experts interviewed expressed concerns about attitudes of prosecutors and judges that contribute to impunity for domestic violence. A lawyer in Osh who represents victims described some of her cases to demonstrate how domestic abuse victims can be further victimized by the system. In one case, a woman had been subjected to 15 years of violence by her husband. “He would beat her severely until she would lose consciousness,” the lawyer said. To try to escape her husband’s threats, the woman jumped from a building with her baby. With no regard for the domestic abuse that drove her to jump, officials prosecuted her for attempting to kill her child. She was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison. She is awaiting appeal in detention and is not receiving psychological or other assistance as a victim of abuse, the lawyer said. Her husband has faced no charges.

Service providers and experts said that improved training for police, prosecutors, and judges is essential to application of laws on violence against women and girls. The head of an Osh crisis center said, referring to the new Family Violence Law: “Police at least are registering cases – but, of course, only those who are aware of the legislation.”

An expert consultant on gender issues for the police said that gender-based violence courses are not mandatory at the Internal Affairs Ministry’s academy. “Their argument is that the Ministry of Education requirements are so dense, there is nowhere to put these gender-related courses,” she said.

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