I. Introduction: Struggling for Recognition, Seeking Safety

Askar, 25, considers himself a transgender man. Born female, at 21 he adopted more masculine clothes and hairstyles. His father and brother claimed their right to control him as one of the “women” in the family. Their punishment began with rules. It developed into beatings.

Two years ago I started wearing this men’s type of clothing everywhere, on streets, at school, and they did not like it at all…At first it was just lectures, very long lectures on things, like that girls must wear skirts. My father liked when girls would wear a headscarf, as a proper Muslim girl should do. The hair had to be long and the girl must stay at home, cook, do laundry and clean the house, and so on, and wait for her husband, the prince… Then it turned into stricter measures…My brother was rude about it; he would not allow me to answer the phone. They told me that I had to be at home at seven o’clock sharp every evening. In addition, everything, including food and other things, should be ready for them by the time they came home…I just wanted to stop doing things [my father’s] way and resist the pressure to live my life the way he wanted me to live. 1 

In a 2006 report, “Reconciled to Violence: State Failure to Stop Domestic Abuse and Abduction of Women in Kyrgyzstan,” Human Rights Watch documented the national problem of violence against women in Kyrgyzstan, and how, despite progressive laws, the state has failed to protect women’s rights to physical security and autonomy.2

This report pursues those themes. In the national landscape of inequality, some women have particular vulnerabilities, and have specific difficulties in finding protection from the state. Women who are attracted to other women, and who violate rigid gender roles defining what a “woman” should be, transgress against the “father’s way”: deeply ingrained cultural and social definitions of womanhood.  Lesbians, transgender men, and women who have sex with other women are frequently subjected to violence, rape, psychological abuse, and confinement and stigmatization. Abuses may happen on the street or in the home, at the hands of strangers or family members.  Survivors find little practical hope of government protection, because of social prejudice and silence. This report offers personal testimonies suggesting the scope of a previously invisible phenomenon. The Kyrgyzstan government’s response to violence against women will be incomplete until it identifies and addresses the actual situations of all the victims.  This report therefore explains Kyrgyzstan’s human rights obligations, while offering recommendations for state action.

This report will deal with identities and terms that may be unfamiliar to many readers in Kyrgyzstan: 

  • We use “lesbian” to refer to women who are primarily attracted to other women—whose sexual and emotional attractions are directed at other women, and whose self-identity is partly built around the fact. Bisexual women are attracted to both women and men. “Women who have sex with women” is a phrase used to describe those who do not necessarily identify as “lesbians” or “bisexuals,” but nonetheless at times engage in sexual and emotional relationships with other women.
  • “Transgender people” are people who feel their inner selves to be different from how their bodies are categorized. Understanding their experiences means recognizing how gender is not the same as biological sex. Biological sex means how we classify bodies as male or female. Those who do the classifying use factors such as hormones, chromosomes, and sex organs. Gender describes how we attach social and cultural meanings to the ideas of “masculinity” and “femininity.” Being “masculine,” to a society or an individual, is very different from being a “man.” It involves cultural ideas about “manly” behavior that are very different from just interpreting chromosomes or sex organs.

Everyone has a gender identity, a sense of themselves as masculine or feminine (or a sense that these terms are not relevant to them). Many people’s inner sense of themselves as masculine or feminine is not the same as the sex they were classified as at birth. Female-to-male (FTM) transgender people were born with female bodies but have a predominantly male gender identity; male-to-female (MTF) transgender people were born with male bodies but have a predominantly female gender identity.

(Reference to these groups in this report will sometimes be shortened to “lesbians and transgender men,” not to minimize other identities, but to avoid unwieldy acronyms).

Many of these words have counterparts rooted in Kyrgyz culture. In the southern Kyrgz dialect, “kyz bala” refers to a young girl who demonstrates behavior considered “masculine.” In the northern Kyrgz dialect, the term suggests a “masculine” adult woman. “Erkek kyz” is another Kyrgyz term for a woman considered to be “like a man.”

The point here is not so much to distinguish “indigenous” identities from others as to observe that people have a right to identify as they choose.  However, the Kyrgyz government allows families and communities to enforce conformity. Forcing people into a single model of whom to love and how to identify themselves violates their human rights.

The situation of lesbian women and transgender men is part and parcel of the vulnerability to violence women face throughout Kyrgyzstan. Family members, spouses, and even strangers use violence to remind women, and transgender men, of the behavior expected of them—as women. Strangers may assault them on the street. Families may beat them. Police may deny them protection. Yet there is a particular factor in the abuses they face: they are singled out not just as women but because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, because they identify themselves in ways that defy social expectations. This report does not claim, nor does our research provide a basis for suggesting, that the situation of lesbians and transgender men is worse than that of other women who face violence in Kyrgyzstan. However, this report does suggest that their specific vulnerability, caused by prejudice, has to be addressed if the violence against them is to be effectively halted or prevented.

The violence stems from prejudice, and so does the state’s inaction. At a roundtable organized in 2005 to address lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people’s rights, an official from the Ministry of the Interior, which oversees the police, made a telling statement:

In Bishkek you want all this? ... You will never have the green light here. It would happen in America, or somewhere else in the West, but not here… You will have to keep hiding in basements with all your business… You say, “We are afraid because they beat us.” For instance, I would also beat them. Let’s say I walk in a park with my son. I have just one son. And there are two guys walking holding each other’s hands. I would beat them up too.3

The need for addressing prejudice is urgent. According to a survey conducted between July 2006 and January 2007 by Labrys—a non-governmental organization (NGO) serving lesbians, bisexual women, women who have sex with women, and transgender men—60 percent of respondents who identified as lesbian, bisexual, or transgender had not told their parents about their sexual orientation or gender identity.4 Of those who told their parents, 18 percent experienced physical violence as a result and 56 percent of their families tried to force them to change their sexual orientation. Moreover, 23 percent, or approximately one in four of those surveyed, have experienced sexual assault during their lives.5

Labrys, a non-governmental organization in Kyrgyzstan, was formed in 2005 to respond to these needs through advocacy, community organizing, and service delivery.6  The organization found chronic depression, alcoholism, and repeated suicide attempts among its target population.  Anna Kirey, Labrys program coordinator, says she wanted to ask in the survey, “Where do you see yourself in five years?   …  Some people had trouble because they couldn’t see themselves in five years. They don’t feel like they have a future.”7 

Kyrgyzstan has undertaken promising reforms.  Under the Soviet-era penal code, consensual sex between adult men could be punished with up to two years imprisonment. The new Criminal Code of the Kyrgyz Republic, which entered into force on January 1, 1998, decriminalized consensual sex between adult men.

However, a legacy of discrimination against people identified as “homosexuals” persists, and Kyrgyz law offers no protections. In 1994, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the authoritative body responsible for interpreting and monitoring compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)—to which Kyrgyzstan is a party—held that “sexual orientation” was a status protected from discrimination. The human right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has been affirmed by international human rights systems. Kyrgyzstan should do so as well.

In another step forward, in 2003 Kyrgyzstan enacted the Law on Social-Legal Protection from Domestic Violence (the Domestic Violence Law). On paper, the law is highly progressive, and significantly, it recognizes not only spousal abuse but all forms of family violence. Given the prevalence of domestic violence in the lives of lesbians and transgender men, from both spouses and other family members, effectively implementing this law is critical to their well-being.

The UN special rapporteur on violence against women has called women’s sexuality a “battleground”8 worldwide, observing that:

A woman who is perceived to be acting in a manner deemed to be sexually inappropriate by communal standards is liable to be punished... Women who choose options which are disapproved of by the community, whether to have a sexual relationship with a man in a non-marital relationship, to have such a relationship outside of ethnic, religious or class communities, or to live out their sexuality in ways other than heterosexuality, are often subjected to violence and degrading treatment… 9

This report shows one instance of this worldwide problem, the “policing” of such lives in Kyrgyzstan. Recent legal changes offer hope for lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender men in Kyrgyzstan. An active commitment to equality and protection is essential, though. Otherwise, injustice will continue.


This report is based on interviews with 17 survivors of abuse who identified as lesbians, bisexual women, women who have sex with women, or transgender men. Ten of these interviews took place in Bishkek in 2005, when two Human Rights Watch staff members traveled to Kyrgyzstan to research domestic violence and the kidnapping of girls and women for forced marriage. That work became the foundation of this report. Two subsequent interviews were conducted in Bishkek in January 2005 by the human rights organization Labrys for Human Rights Watch. In July-August 2007, two Human Rights Watch researchers conducted interviews with five additional survivors in Kyrgyzstan. Some interviews were conducted in Russian by researchers fluent in Russian, others were conducted by native Russian speakers.

Over the course of this project, multiple interviews were also conducted by telephone and email from New York. Throughout this period and in follow-up research through August 2008, Human Rights Watch also spoke with various NGOs in Kyrgyzstan and internationally that work in support of human rights, LGBT rights, sex worker rights, and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.

This sample of victims interviewed for this report is small. The invisibility of lesbians and transgender men in Kyrgyzstan, coupled with the gravity of the violence they endure, limited our access to people willing to speak. The report presents examples and does not claim a comprehensive picture.  However, the in-depth portraits we present show people who are still left out of the state’s response to violence. They illustrate how severe the consequences of that omission on individual lives can be.

The identities of most of the people interviewed for this report, and some of their identifying information, have been withheld to protect their privacy and safety.

1 Human Rights Watch interview with Askar, Bishkek, November 2005.

2 Human Rights Watch, Reconciled to Violence: State Failure to Stop Domestic Abuse and Abduction of Women in Kyrgyzstan, vol. 18, no.9 (D), September 2006,

3 Quoted in Timurkhan Djedilbayev and Anna Dovgopol, “Roundtable,” Labrys Magazine, vol. 1, February 2005.

4 This study remains unpublished but a summary of its results is on file at Human Rights Watch. It was conducted by questionnaire amplified by structured interview. Interviews and questionnaires were administered by six different interviewers of different identities and from different ethnic groups, over the six months of the research. The figures above reflect percentages of the 94 respondents to the questionnaire. Participants in the research were largely drawn from social networks of the clients of Labrys’ services (although a high number of respondents did not regularly visit the Labrys office), almost all from Bishkek or the surrounding areas. It is possible that it underestimates the rate of violence experienced by women or transgender people in rural or outlying areas.

5 Given the high rates of sexual assault reported by respondents, it is striking that the vast majority of respondents were below 30, raising the question of how many would experience sexual assault in the remaining course of a lifetime. Even one of the study’s authors was shocked by the high numbers of cases of sexual assault. “We [previously] knew of 5-8 cases only.” (Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Anna Kirey, January 29, 2007).

6 Labrys is also the first and only organization dedicated to the empowerment of lesbians and transgender men in Central Asia.

7 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Anna Kirey, May 14, 2007.

8”Preliminary report submitted by the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences,” E/CN.4/1995/42, November 22, 1994, p. 60.

9 "Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences," UN Doc. E/CN.4/1997/47, 12 February 1997.