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Submission to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women Review of Kyrgyzstan

80th Session

We write in advance of the 80th Session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (“the Committee”) and its review of Kyrgyzstan to highlight areas of concern regarding the government of Kyrgyzstan’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). This submission addresses Articles 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 14, and 15 of the Convention. The submission covers domestic violence against women and girls, police and judicial responses to domestic violence complaints, bride kidnapping, attacks on women activists, access to education during the Covid-19 pandemic, and protection of education from attack.

Violence against women and girls (Articles 1, 2, 3, and 14)

Human Rights Watch notes the steps that the government of Kyrgyzstan has taken to prevent violence against women and girls since the Kyrgyz government presented its last report before the Committee. In 2016, the government introduced criminal penalties for those who conduct or facilitate religious marriages of children; in 2017, it adopted a strengthened Law on Prevention and Protection Against Family Violence (Family Violence Law) which requires police to respond to every domestic violence report and issue a protection order; and in 2019, the government criminalized domestic violence, abduction for the purpose of marriage, or “bride kidnapping,” and forced marriage. In March 2020, parliament adopted amendments to domestic violence related laws which include provisions to hold relevant law enforcement officials to account for failure to implement or inadequately implementing the law.[1] The Ministry of Health and Ministry of Internal Affairs issued internal instructions on the application of the law, and in 2021 the government embarked on development of a new gender equality strategy-2030 and a national plan of action for 2021-2023.[2]

Despite a strengthened legal and policy framework, there remain significant gaps in protection of women and girls from domestic violence and domestic violence remains a pervasive problem in Kyrgyzstan. In addition, the Kyrgyz government is doing little to increase the number of shelter spaces, or access to medical, mental health, legal and socio-economic services, or ensure proper investigation and prosecution of cases.[3]

The gaps in Kyrgyzstan’s domestic violence response were recognized at parliament in January 2020, after at least three women died after being severely beaten by their partners.[4] Additionally, government data shows that from January to March 2020, law enforcement agencies in Kyrgyzstan registered 2,319 complaints of domestic violence, which constituted a 65 percent increase over the same period in 2019.[5] And in the first eight months of 2021, the police registered 7,665 cases of domestic violence against women, which is 30 percent higher than the same period in 2020.[6]

The risk to women and girls has increased significantly due to the Covid-19 pandemic. On March 22, 2020, the Kyrgyz government introduced a state of emergency, including restrictions on freedom of movement and introducing a curfew, which left women and girls at risk of domestic violence without means or opportunity to escape their aggressors. Within the first six months of 2020, the Ministry of Interior Affairs reported a 65 percent rise in the number of domestic violence cases compared to the same period in 2019.[7]

Due to the state of emergency, shelters, crisis centers, and other services had been shut down and not allowed to accept new cases. Only one crisis center “Shans” was officially allowed to work from May 11 until the end of summer 2020. Later in 2020, more centers providing shelter services were able to open, and in February 2021 the first state-run crisis center with shelter space for 60 women was opened.[8]

Human Rights Watch documented how poor police and judicial response, the lack of services such as shelters, and social pressure by families and authorities inhibit victims from coming forward to report abuse. Despite the 2017 Family Violence Law, which requires authorities to establish or support medical, psychological, shelter, and legal assistance for domestic violence survivors, those who do seek help and justice often are unable to access the support or protection they need. Instead, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) try to fill this gap, providing assistance to domestic violence victims, often with limited budgets. The director of an organization operating a Bishkek shelter told Human Rights Watch 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.”[9]

Human Rights Watch recommends the Committee to use the upcoming review to urge the government of Kyrgyzstan to:

  • Establish, disclose, and implement a plan of action to ensure that women subject to or at risk of domestic violence have full access to essential services, including short-term and long-term shelters, medical care, psychosocial support, and legal assistance, including in rural areas;
  • Ensure that staff at both government and NGO-run crisis centers undergo mandatory and ongoing training to enable them to provide services and support for survivors while respecting their rights and dignity and protecting their safety;
  • Take measures to raise public awareness regarding domestic violence, available services, and how and why to access them;
  • Ensure availability of guaranteed free legal services to domestic violence survivors who lack the financial means to secure legal representation;
  • Classify domestic violence services as “essential” and ensure shelters and other support services remain operational, while respecting preventive measures such as social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Protection Orders and Police Response to Domestic Violence (Articles 2, 3, and 15)

The 2017 Family Violence Law led to a notable spike in protection orders, intended to provide short-term, immediate protection from abuse. Although government data is not yet available for 2020, the Association for Crises Centres data is illustrative: police issued 2,319 protection orders in the first three months of 2020, a 72 percent increase in comparison to the same period in 2019.[10]

Service providers and activists told Human Rights Watch that while police are issuing more protection orders under the new law, they still do not issue them in every case, and violations of the orders are rarely punished. The head of an association of crisis centers has also pointed out that the issuance of protection orders alone is inadequate: “If the perpetrator is an abuser used to resorting to domestic violence regularly, for him a three-day protection order is nothing.”[11]

Police issued nearly 5,400 protection orders in 2019, but government data shows only 18 registered misdemeanors for failure to comply.[12]

Measures in place to stem the spread of the coronavirus also make it difficult for women to get the protection they need. For example, if a woman has to stay with her abuser in quarantine, then any protection order issued prohibiting contact between her and her abuser is meaningless. T. T., acting director of Association for Crises Centres, told Human Rights Watch that it has happened that “[a] victim and abuser are brought to the police station to report the case, but then they are both brought back home to be locked down again.”[13]

Human Rights Watch recommends the Committee to use the upcoming review to urge the government of Kyrgyzstan to:

  • Ensure that all relevant personnel–including in the health and law enforcement sectors–participate in mandatory training on appropriate responses to domestic violence at regular intervals and in accordance with international best practice standards on a survivor-centered response;
  • Ensure that law enforcement personnel who inappropriately or inadequately respond to domestic violence complaints or deter or prevent survivors from filing complaints are held accountable for misconduct;
  • Ensure that police effectively initiate, enforce, and monitor protection orders;
  • Ensure training of medical personnel and police on information- and data-sharing to clarify the parameters of the Family Violence Law and promote adherence to international best practice standards on information-sharing between medical and law enforcement personnel.

Police and Judicial Response to Complaints of Domestic Violence (Articles 2, 3, and 15)

Human Rights Watch research has found that multiple barriers keep survivors of abuse from getting justice in Kyrgyzstan and that critical gaps in the 2017 Family Violence Law and its implementation hamper its effectiveness.[14]

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,” an Osh crisis center staff member told Human Rights Watch. Yet legal assistance remains difficult to access or is non-existent. As one lawyer said: “There aren’t many lawyers specializing in domestic violence in the country, and victims of domestic violence normally can’t afford lawyers.”[15]

Service providers and lawyers told Human Rights Watch that 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 ... 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 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.”

Countering dismissive attitudes and inaction by police is an ongoing battle, activists say. “The local authorities think domestic violence is none of their business,” said G. J., a gender-based violence expert. Kyrgyzstan’s State Agency for Local Government has an essential role to play in implementing national commitments and focusing local officials’ attention on domestic violence.[16]

Since the Family Violence Law was adopted in 2017, the government has yet to fulfill 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.[17] A consequence of this has been ministries using different iterations of the law as the basis for data collection resulting in inconsistent statistics on the number of cases registered.

Further, 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.

Human Rights Watch recommends the Committee to use the upcoming review to urge the government of Kyrgyzstan to:

  • Ensure that relevant personnel within the judicial system (including judges and prosecutors) participate in mandatory training on appropriate responses to domestic violence at regular intervals and in accordance with international best practice standards on a survivor-centered response;
  • Design and implement a mandatory core curriculum on domestic violence response at the police training institute, as well as in police retraining and qualification courses, in accordance with the above protocols and UNODC standards;
  • Train law enforcement officers to accurately classify cases of domestic violence under relevant Administrative and Criminal Code articles;
  • Design and implement a mandatory core curriculum for training of prosecutors and judges on domestic violence response in accordance with national and international laws and UNODC standards.

The abduction of girls and women for child and/or forced marriage (Articles 2 and 5)

The Criminal Code of Kyrgyzstan 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.”[18]

On May 27, 2018, B. T. K., a 20-year-old woman from Bishkek, was forcibly abducted for the purposes of a forced marriage. B. T. K. was stabbed to death at a police station the same day, when police who had detained her and her abductor left them alone in a room together. B. T. K.’s tragic death is a striking example of the authorities’ failure to protect women and girls subjected to “bride kidnapping.”[19]

Human Rights Watch recommends the Committee to use the upcoming review to urge the government of Kyrgyzstan to:

  • Ensure that the relevant law enforcement agencies investigate and appropriately prosecute all cases of child and/or forced marriage, and of bride kidnapping in accordance with the law;
  • Monitor responses by law enforcement and judicial bodies to complaints of domestic violence and bride kidnapping marriage, including the issuing and enforcement of protection orders and prosecution of cases;
  • Hold police and judicial personnel accountable for failure to exercise due diligence in preventing, registering, and investigating complaints and witness testimonies of planned or occurred bride kidnapping;
  • Ensure that abductors and their family members or friends that are complicit in the crime are prosecuted, and receive adequate penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime;
  • Ensure that victims of bride kidnapping have access to effective remedies, including reparations;
  • Make concerted efforts on all levels of governance to raise awareness about the unacceptability of bride kidnapping, and the penalties that it entails;
  • Consider re-categorization of domestic violence and bride kidnapping as public offenses in the Criminal and Criminal-Procedural Codes, allowing any witness, not just the victim, to submit complaints.

Targeting of Women Activists (Articles 2(c), 3 and 14)

In 2019, the “Feminnale” exhibition at Kyrgyzstan’s National Art Museum in Bishkek generated resentment within conservative segments of the population. Opponents of the exhibition accused the organizers of “imposing” values that are “contrary” to national mentality and tradition.[20] According to Feminnale participants, “ultra-right groups” instigated an intense backlash on social media. The museum’s director, M. D., stepped down after being subjected to verbal abuse and threats of rape. The Minister of Culture, A. Z., had also ordered removal of several artworks that had caused the most protest, citing their provocative nature and non-compliance with the stated theme of the exhibition.[21] The censored artworks involved representations of naked women.[22]

During the celebration of International Women’s Day in 2020, a group of masked men assaulted people who had gathered in Bishkek to participate in a march in support of women’s rights.[23] The march was an act of solidarity and protest against domestic violence, forced marriage, and other forms of violence against women and girls.

The men threw eggs at the marchers, dragged them to the ground, and destroyed their banners, activists and media reported. When police arrived, rather than seeking out the attackers, police forced activists to board a bus and took them to Bishkek’s Sverdlovsk police station. Some reported physical abuse by the police. Kyrgyzstan police held about 70 activists, mostly women, for hours without telling them about the grounds for their detention or providing access to lawyers.[24]

Human Rights Watch recommends the Committee to use the upcoming review to urge the government of Kyrgyzstan to:

  • Protect women’s rights activists against threats of violence and ensure that they take all feasible measures to facilitate women’s rights activists’ exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and association;
  • Investigate the circumstances around the mass arrests and attacks on the activists during the 2020 International Women’s Day march in Bishkek and bring those responsible to justice;
  • Hold police, judicial and governmental personnel accountable for failure to protect the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly for women activists.

Access to Education during the Covid-19 Pandemic (Article 10)

As of August 30, 2021, children in Kyrgyzstan had been affected by approximately 135 days of full and partial school closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic, though most schools had fully opened by December 2020.[25] According to UNICEF, school closures during this time affected 1.44 million children.[26]

Though distance learning was implemented for some students during school closures, there were still some setbacks for students. One 17-year-old girl described to Human Rights Watch the difficulties in adapting to the online environment: “I find it complicated to deal with the Classroom app.... No one explained [to] us how to use [it].”[27] Poor internet connection acted as a barrier from even being able to attend her classes, which ultimately made her give up and not take English classes. She also described her poor academic performance as a result of inadequate distance learning methods: “My grades are getting worse ... I don’t understand subjects, assignments.”[28]

As parents and other caregivers assumed more responsibility for children’s education during Covid-19 related school closures, the quality of children’s education increasingly depended upon caregivers’ time, ability, capacity, and education. Women predominantly assumed a disproportionate level of the domestic workload and responsibilities for ensuring and monitoring remote learning.[29] One mother of four children described her experience during this time: “I am all by myself educating and taking care of my children. My husband doesn’t help me at all as he has to work.”[30]

Human Rights Watch recommends the Committee to use the upcoming review to urge the government of Kyrgyzstan to:

  • Adopt strategies to mitigate the impacts of in-person school closures on children’s learning, for example by working with teachers, school officials, and teachers’ unions and associations, and local education and parent committees, to recover teaching or contact hours lost and, where necessary, adjusting school calendars and exam schedules.
  • Adopt measures to provide affordable, reliable, quality, and accessible internet, including targeted measures to provide free, equitable access to the internet for educational content, and capable devices for every student. Children most likely to be excluded or have inadequate access, including those from marginalized or vulnerable communities, living in rural areas, with disabilities, or living in families with multiple children, or due to their gender, should receive targeted support.
  • Focus on mitigating the disproportionate effects on children and adolescents who already experience barriers accessing education, or who are at higher risk of being excluded, including students in remote locations, girls, and children from poor households or otherwise vulnerable communities;
  • Focus on mitigating the disproportionate impact of increased child-care and teaching responsibilities on women at home.

Protection of Education from Attack (Article 10)

Conflict in the border areas between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in late April 2021 resulted in over 50 people killed, hundreds injured, and thousands fleeing their homes. At least two children were killed in the conflict. Two schools and one kindergarten in Kyrgyzstan were damaged or destroyed in the fighting, disrupting education.[31]

As recognized by this Committee in its General Recommendation No. 30, attacks on students and schools, and the use of schools for military purposes, disproportionately affect girls, who are sometimes the focus of targeted attacks and are more likely to be kept out of school due to security concerns.[32]

The Safe Schools Declaration is an inter-governmental political commitment that provides countries the opportunity to express political support for the protection of students, teachers, and schools during times of armed conflict[33]; the importance of the continuation of education during armed conflict; and the implementation of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.[34] As of September 2021, 112 countries have endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration[35]; however Kyrgyzstan has yet to do so.

Human Rights Watch recommends the Committee to use the upcoming review to urge the government of Kyrgyzstan to:

  • Take steps to examine and address and, as relevant, remedy any disproportionate harm to girls’ access to education as a result of hostilities;
  • Ensure Kyrgyz laws, policies, or trainings provide explicit protection for schools and universities from military use during armed conflict;
  • Endorse and implement the Safe Schools Declaration to deter the military use of schools.

[1] Text of the amended Law on protection from family violence, Kyrgyz Parliament, No. 41, April 15, 2020, http://cbd.minjust.gov.kg/act/view/ru-ru/112043.

[2] “Kyrgyzstan: Pressure Builds to Protect Women and Girls,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 28, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/05/28/kyrgyzstan-pressure-builds-protect-women-and-girls; “New national strategy on gender equality will be developed in Kyrgyzstan,” Ministry of Health, February 24, 2021, https://mlsp.gov.kg/2021/02/24/v-kyrgyzstane-razrabotayut-novuyu-naczionalnuyu-strategiyu-po-dostizheniyu-gendernogo-ravenstva/ (accessed September 16, 2021).

[3] “Call Me When He Tries to Kill You,” Human Rights Watch news release, October 28, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/10/28/call-me-when-he-tries-kill-you/state-response-domestic-violence-kyrgyzstan.

[4] Hillary Margolis (Human Rights Watch), “Grim news from Kyrgyzstan on domestic violence,” commentary, openDemocracy, March 5, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/05/grim-news-kyrgyzstan-domestic-violence.

[5] Darya Podolskaya, “Domestic violence grows by 65 percent in Kyrgyzstan,” 24kg, April 22, 2020, https://24.kg/english/150832__Domestic_violence_grows_by_65_percent_in_Kyrgyzstan/ (accessed September 16, 2021).

[6] “Questions on strengthening legislation against domestic violence were discussed in Bishkek,” Government of Kyrgyzstan press release, September 20, 2021, https://www.gov.kg/ru/post/s/20438-bishkekte-y-bllk-zombulukka-karshy-myyzamdy-rkndt-maselesi-talkuulandy (accessed September 16, 2021).

[7] “Number of domestic violence cases has grown by 2-3 times,” Kloop.kg, February 24, 2021, https://kloop.kg/blog/2021/02/24/religionvsabuse/ (accessed September 16, 2021).

[8] “Opening of the new state-run crisis center for women,” Kyrgyz city administration press release, 2021, https://www.meria.kg/ru/post/21524 (accessed September 16, 2021).

[9] “Kyrgyzstan: Pressure Builds to Protect Women and Girls,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 28, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/05/28/kyrgyzstan-pressure-builds-protect-women-and-girls.

[10] Presentation by Zulfia Kochorbaeva, “Overview of domestic violence cases during emergency situation,” May 6, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/DatkAyim2019/videos/254064832625964 (accessed September 16, 2021).

[11] “Kyrgyzstan: Pressure Builds to Protect Women and Girls,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 28, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/05/28/kyrgyzstan-pressure-builds-protect-women-and-girls.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Aichurek Kurmanbekova, “Women Risk Domestic Violence During Kyrgyzstan’s Lockdown,” commentary, Human Rights Dispatch, April 8, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/08/women-risk-domestic-violence-during-kyrgyzstans-lockdown.

[14] “Kyrgyzstan: Pressure Builds to Protect Women and Girls,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 28, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/05/28/kyrgyzstan-pressure-builds-protect-women-and-girls.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Hillary Margolis (Human Rights Watch), “Grim news from Kyrgyzstan on domestic violence,” commentary, openDemocracy, March 5, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/05/grim-news-kyrgyzstan-domestic-violence.

[17] “Kyrgyzstan: Pressure Builds to Protect Women and Girls,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 28, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/05/28/kyrgyzstan-pressure-builds-protect-women-and-girls.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Hillary Margolis, “Young Woman’s Murder in Kyrgyzstan Shows Cost of ‘Tradition,’” commentary, Human Rights Dispatch, May 31, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/05/31/young-womans-murder-kyrgyzstan-shows-cost-tradition.

[20] Bermet Ulanova, “Report on the provocation around Feminnale,” Kaktus Media, December 2, 2019, https://kaktus.media/doc/402009_y_myzeia_neskolko_myjchin_popytalis_sprovocirovat_art_kyratora_feminnale_altyn_kapalovy.html (accessed September 24, 2021).

[21] Aidana Abduvaitova, “Removal of several artworks,” Kaktus Media, December 2, 2019, https://kaktus.media/doc/402000_feminnale_prodoljitsia._no_bez_nekotoryh_ekspoziciy.html (accessed September 24, 2021).

[22] Laura Mills and Hillary Margolis, “Feminist Art Exhibit Threatened in Kyrgyzstan,” commentary, Human Rights Dispatch, December 6, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/12/06/feminist-art-exhibit-threatened-kyrgyzstan.

[23] Bakyt Asanov, “Open your face: who is behind the masked people that sabotaged the march of 8th March?” Azattyk, March 11, 2020, https://rus.azattyk.org/a/kyrgyzstan-masochniki-obon-kyrk-choro-march/30481008.html (accessed September 24, 2021).

[24] “Kyrgyzstan: Women’s Activists Detained,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 11, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/11/kyrgyzstan-womens-activists-detained.

[25] UNESCO, “Duration of School Closures”, undated, https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse#durationschoolclosures (accessed September 17, 2021); “The Government of Japan allocates US 2.7 million to ensure the safe reopening of schools and catch-up learning in response to COVID-19 in Kyrgyzstan,” UNICEF press release, August 4, 2021, https://www.unicef.org/kyrgyzstan/press-releases/government-japan-allocates-us-27-million-ensure-safe-reopening-schools-and-catch (accessed September 17, 2021).

[26] Ibid.

[27] Human Rights Watch interview with M. J., 17, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, May 31, 2020.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Damaris Seleina Parsitau,“Invisible lives, missing voices: Putting women and girls at the center of post-COVID-19 recovery and reconstruction,” Brookings Institution, January 28, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-infocus/2021/01/28/invisible-lives-missing-voices-putting-women-and-girls-at-the-center-of-post-covid-19-recovery-andreconstruction/ (accessed February 22, 2021).

[30] Human Rights Watch interview with mother, Karabalta, Chuy region, Kyrgyzstan, June 1, 2020.

[31] “After Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan Border Conflict, Time For a Human Rights Agenda,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 21, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/05/21/after-kyrgyzstan-tajikistan-border-conflict-time-human-rights-agenda.

[32] UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, General Recommendation No. 30, Access to Education, U.N Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/30 (2013), para. 48. See also African Committee on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, General Comment on Article 22: Children in Situations of Conflict, (2020), para. 78.

[33] Safe Schools Declaration, May 28, 2015, https://www.regjeringen.no/globalassets/departementene/ud/vedlegg/utvikling/safe_schools_declaration.pdf (accessed July 26, 2021).

[34] Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, March 18, 2014, http://protectingeducation.org/sites/default/files/documents/guidelines_en.pdf (accessed July 26, 2021).

[35] The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, “Safe Schools Declaration Endorsements”, undated, https://ssd.protectingeducation.org/endorsement/ (accessed September 16, 2021).

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