II. Domestic Violence, Rape, and Harassment

Domestic Violence and Abuse

“Home is not the only place where I don’t feel safe, but it is the only place where I am in constant danger.”10

Violence against women and girls in families is generally high in Kyrgyzstan.11  Labrys’ research (particularly its 2006-7 survey) found that many lesbians and transgender men’s experiences of domestic violence begin as children in their natal home. However in adolescence, a girl’s refusal to conform to cultural understandings of sexuality and “femininity” becomes a force and fact behind the kinds of abuse that she may suffer. Nurbek, a Labrys advocate, comments, “[M]ost of our cases are about domestic violence.”12 Moreover, once adults, lesbians and transgender men may have no choice but to marry, becoming vulnerable to the domestic violence that is too often a part of married life in Kyrgyzstan—particularly vulnerable if a woman’s husband questions her “femininity.”13

Never act like a man”: beatings

Nurbek, a 25-year-old transgender man, received a harsh beating in 2004 when he was expelled from university for what the school administration termed his “abnormal sexual orientation.”14  “My father came home, took me into the room and started beating me. At first he beat me with a stool, then with a rolling pin, then the rolling pin broke. Then he started beating me with his fists. Then he kicked me a lot. Until he was tired, basically. The next day the same round was repeated. After lunch he started beating me again…He beat me with whatever came into his hands, whatever he could use.”15  Nurbek was diagnosed with a concussion, broken ribs, and brain and skull trauma. He chose not to report the attack to the police.

Gulzat and Keres are a lesbian couple in their late twenties. Keres’ family detests their relationship. One night in 2006, Keres’ family arrived at the apartment the couple shared. Gulzat explained:

Keres’ mother is an authoritative woman…She forced her way into the room, saying to me “You stayed in my house, why can’t I enter yours?” She took her pocketbook and slammed Keres’ head with it three times. Keres was standing like she was made of stone; she did not even move when her mother was beating her. All Keres’ family joined them in the apartment. Her brother stood on the bed without even taking his shoes off…I still have scars from that day.16

Askar described how his father charged his brother with keeping Askar under control and a “good daughter.” After Askar adopted a masculine appearance, the treatment worsened:

[W]hen I was younger [my brother] would use sticks to beat me. But when I grew up, he started using his hands. Then when the sudden change in my image happened, he started using his fists against me. It makes me laugh to think that he used to say: “You’re not a man, so never act like a man.” At the same time, he always behaved with me and treated me like a guy. I mean that he would beat me up; he would teach me lessons the guy’s way…If he thought that I should not have been a guy and that I was a girl, then why didn’t he treat me like a girl?

[W]e had a particularly bad fight that lasted for about two hours. It was so, so, I do not even know how to describe it, so many bad things happened. The most humiliating thing was that I could not leave my room and wash away my blood; they wouldn’t let me.17 

Askar also never reported this violence to the police.

Some victims report death threats. Djazgul, a 23-year-old lesbian, has a brother who disapproves of her lesbian friends; he warned her, “If I ever see you with this gang again, I am not responsible for my actions.”18 Shoira, a 46-year-old lesbian, has been threatened by her girlfriend’s husband: he says he plans to kill the two women, then himself.19  Gulzat told us that “Keres’ mother and brother said they will beat me really badly if they ever see us together. Her uncle promised he will hire someone to kill me.”20 

“These everyday humiliations”: psychological abuse

Nurbek observed, “Violence is not limited to the physical. There is also a psychological pressure: these everyday humiliations.”21 Nurbek’s family regularly told him that he was abnormal, accused him of being a drug addict, and told him they wished he would die. He attempted suicide three times.

Askar eventually required psychiatric care because of deep depression and multiple suicide attempts:

[My brother] used to say: “Now you are the sick one, so we cannot even say a word to you. You are our cranky, sick child.” Sick, sick, for so many years I heard from him that I am the freak in the family, that I am, according to his words, a little piece of shit which was so small but which stunk real bad. He used to say to me, “Who are you in this house? Your mere existence gets on everybody’s nerves. You should not have been born at all.”22

The consequences of abuse infuse all areas of people’s lives: pursuing education, keeping a job, staying healthy. When Sasha’s family discovered she was a lesbian, they threw her out of the house: “I found a job as a waitress, gave up my studies and just drank all my money away. I was in a horrible state.”23  

So that I, as he says, won’t leave”: restricted movement

Abusive family members restrict the movement of the women of their families—or those they treat as women—in order to isolate and control them. Human Rights Watch has documented this common pattern in Kyrgyzstan.24 Lesbians and transgender men may therefore be blocked from escaping a violent home. Lesbians and transgender men Human Rights Watch interviewed describe their abusers’ methods: creating financial dependency, enforcing curfews, dictating their movement within and outside the home, and isolating them from sympathetic family and friends. In some cases, families capture women who escape and force them to return.

When Keres’s parents invaded her and Gulzat’s home, they forced Keres to return with them. Gulzat said, “I am afraid of leaving my home or office. I get all sweaty whenever I walk in the street. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a park or the main square.”25

Nurbek’s entire family monitored his movements. His uncle would send him home if found outside; his family checked his notebooks for phone numbers of his friends, warning them not to keep in touch with him.

[My father] hits me in the face. …. Specifically to leave marks, so that, as he says, I won’t leave. If he would beat me, and let’s say broke my hand or leg, I would still run away easily. But how will I appear in such shape [with my face bruised]? This, he knows, is the thing that holds me and that’s why he does it…

I was constantly being controlled. For every trip to the city, I had to find thousands of tricks. … [My family] also controlled me financially. For instance, [my sister] signed instead of me to get my salary, so that I would have less opportunity to go to the city.26

The shortage of shelters in Kyrgyzstan for women facing violence hurts lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender men, as it hurts all victims. They are additionally burdened by the lack of services specific to their needs. 27 Women’s crisis services may assume all clients are heterosexual and all perpetrators husbands, though in the case of lesbians and transgender men, perpetrators are often non-spouse family members. Transgender men may be unwelcome in women’s shelters by virtue of identifying as men; likewise, claiming to be “women” for the sake of obtaining services can be a negation of their identities that replicates, instead of offering refuge from, abuse.28 Further, when someone is abused because of their sexuality or gender identity, it is vital that emergency services take those specific vulnerabilities into account in developing a plan for short- and long-term survival.

“Because she was of the age, not married and without children”: pressure to marry

Djazgul says:

The marriage talks started when I turned 20. My uncle and brother began saying “You will become an old maid. You should marry.” My mom also asks me to consider marriage, “Think what people will say. I need grandchildren. Soon, you’ll be 25, then 27, then 30 and nobody will marry you.”29

Many daughters in Kyrgyzstan feel parental pressure to enter a heterosexual marriage. But parents may see in marriage a means to hide or avoid social stigma—a heterosexual, or homosexual, “shame.” Elmira told us:

My mother was continuously beating me throughout my life. She beat me especially hard when I said I would not marry my common-law husband [a man with whom she had had a long relationship]…. I was traumatized by her attitude, she just wanted the wedding to happen. She told me, “Just make the wedding for us. Then, you can divorce him next day and come back, or do whatever you want, but we need you to get married.” I asked my mother, “Is my happiness of no interest for you?” My mother beat me in response.

After she met her lesbian lover—“I never loved anyone so much before,” she told us—“my mother severely beat me again, and I left home”:

My mother warned me, “We will find you, and lock you up. Have you lost your mind?” Before leaving, I told my family that I will never be married again, that I am fed up with men…. But they will never let me live my life if I stay with them at home. I want to live separately from my family…. I spoke to my sisters on the phone and they told me that “If anything happens to our mom [because of the shame she feels], do not even dream of staying alive.” My sisters don’t support that I love a girl. They said, “[Lesbians] are not human beings. …  Mom tells the truth: you should be locked up; you’re crazy.”30

Human Rights Watch spoke to Elmira in the Labrys shelter in Bishkek, where she had been living for weeks, rejected by her family. Some weeks later, the shelter closed for lack of funds. 31  

Many families believe sexual relations with someone of the opposite sex can “cure” homosexuality. Askar told us, 

[M]y father used to put pressure on my mother, telling her, “She is not normal and it is your fault.” …I lied to them at first. I told my mother: “I am not ready for marriage yet, Mom. Let’s think about it later. I’m thinking about my professional career.” …  She started putting more pressure on me, saying,” Father is very angry with you, so is your brother.”32

Many women in Kyrgyzstan face the threat of forced or early marriage. A group of women interviewed by Human Rights Watch made clear: “Parents who ‘suspect’ try to marry girls off early.”33 Nurbek told Human Rights Watch, “A couple of days ago, I found out that they are looking for someone that they can marry me to, so that I would forget about [being transgender]…and everything would be okay….It is very possible that they will try to do it secretly. You know, in our country, a girl’s agreement is not needed.”34 

Punitive and “Curative” Rape

Tursunai, a 24-year-old lesbian, was raped at a friend’s home in 2004.

After some time my friend suddenly disappeared and the men started to sexually harass me. I wanted to leave to room, but the door was locked. I was trying to break away from them with all my strength, but they were stronger. Then I begged them not to do that. I told them that I never had had sex with men before. I cried. Nothing worked.

Later, it turned out that the friend who invited me over had complained to them that I was a lesbian. They promised that they would help her to “cure” me. That is why she left and why she also locked the door.

After that …. I had a nervous breakdown. I quit my job, stopped hanging out with my friends. I would spend the whole day just lying down at home. … Now everything is in the past. The only thing is, usually, I do not want to remember it or even talk about it.35

As the Labrys survey indicated, 23% of respondents, or almost one in four, experienced sexual assault.36 High levels of shame, stigma, and fear around sexual assault raise the possibility that even these numbers could be an undercount. Anger at women who do not conform, or the drive to end their nonconformity, are reported motives.

Damira, 20, recounts:

In 2002 I had a girlfriend from a very strict family. We were hiding our relationships from everyone, but someone still told her brothers, “Do not allow your sister to hang out with this lesbian.” Once we were going for a walk. Her brothers approached us, told her to go home, and took me behind the corner to “talk.” And there, having intimidated me, the two of them raped me. They told me, “This is your punishment for being this way and hanging around our sister.” Where we were was quite crowded, but I was afraid to cry for help. Nobody would have come out because these guys were thugs and everyone was afraid of them. I told my girlfriend about what happened to me, but even she was not able to do anything. As it turned out, they beat her too.

At this point my relationship with my parents had really deteriorated. Sometimes my mom would say, “I wish you were raped, maybe then you would understand.” That’s why I did not say anything to them. My girlfriend’s brothers kept approaching me afterwards. They demanded that I have sex with them. Until we moved away, I had to hide to avoid another rape.

After that incident, my vagina got sick [with gynecological problems], but I did not go for medical help. A year later, I had to be hospitalized. As it turned out, I had a severe infection in my uterus…

Damira had been raped before, when she was 12: “I liked a girl who lived nearby and I used to visit her often on evenings. Once I was caught by several drunk guys, who beat me up and raped me. I did not mention anything to my mom or to anybody else due to the fear of them not being able to understand, as my parents were against me walking in the evenings.” She says: “After all these incidents, sometimes I feel like I am losing my mind. I can’t communicate normally with people. I fight with my parents and my girlfriend. I actually did not tell anybody. My girlfriend and parents do not know.”37

During the looting that followed the Tulip Revolution in March 2005, Gulzat was raped by two men while three others watched. “They punched me in the head, cursing the whole time. They beat me badly before they took what they wanted. [At first] they thought I was a man, that’s probably why they beat me so badly. They did not beat any of the other girls… I had men’s clothes on. Maybe if they had realized from the beginning that I was a woman, they would not have beaten me so hard.”38

Trauma follows violence, particularly in the absence of counseling appropriate to the circumstances. After she was raped the second time, Damira dropped out of high school and could not keep a job. A Labrys staffer reported, “She wanders the streets at night and she is drunk most of the time. She appears destitute. There is a lot of despair.”39 

Harassment in Public

In a 2004 survey of 43 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Kyrgyzstan (33 identifying as men and 10 as women) by two Dutch organizations, 65% of respondents reported being physically or sexually attacked because of their sexual orientation. Almost every respondent knew someone who experienced firsthand harassment, public humiliation, or assault. 40

Men frequently harass women in public in Kyrgyz cities and towns, and motives are not always clear. One lesbian described a physical assault:  “Late in the evening, I was with my friends, two girls who are very straight looking. I was wearing a fleece jacket. Two guys approached us and were talking to them. At first I thought that they were my friends’ acquaintances. Suddenly, one of them came up to me and punched me in the shoulder and then again in the chest. He said ‘I know you, bitch…’  They ran away, leaving me with big bruises.”41  She thought the men may have approached her and her friends to flirt with them but when they noticed her “masculine” manner, one attacked.   

Others describe less equivocal harassment. One wrote how “People used to make fun of me all the time when I was in the streets. They would ask something like, ‘What do you have between your legs?’  Or when I’d go to the farmer’s market, men would try in an underhanded way to touch my breasts to verify if they were there.”42 

Not conforming to gender norms means being dangerously conspicuous. One woman, with short hair, explained, “If people who speak Kyrgyz see me, they ask if I’m kyz, or bala. My gender is discussed on the spot…There’s a lot of staring, trying to define. Sometimes they say something negative, and something they are just asking ‘who or what are you?’”43 A lesbian told Human Rights Watch, “One time, these men on the street thought that I was a gay man and wanted to beat me up. I didn’t know which would be better, to say I was [a gay man] or to say, no I’m a lesbian. So I ran. They chased me and I just managed to get inside [my apartment], but they beat at the door for hours.”44

Djazgul told Human Rights Watch that harassment eroded her ability to live normally. “For the last three years, I’ve been living under constant stress. I do not want to leave the house and see people. I do not want to use the public transportation. I am tired of the constant question ‘Are you a guy or a girl?’ I am psychologically closing myself down.”45

10Human Rights Watch interview with Nurbek, Bishkek, November 1, 2005.

11 “Reconciled to Violence” examines the phenomenon of spousal abuse and bride kidnapping in detail. Without being identified as such, at least one lesbian (or bisexual) woman’s testimony is included in the report.

12 “Gender Talk” radio show on WNBR with hosts Nancy Nangeroni and Gordene O. MacKenzie and guests Nurbek and Anna Kirey, August 5, 2006,

13 Ibid.

14 Human Rights Watch interview with Nurbek, Bishkek, November 1, 2005.

15 Ibid.

16 Human Rights Watch interview with Gulzat and Keres, Bishkek, July 7, 2007.

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

18 Human Rights Watch interview with Djazgul, Bishkek, August 8, 2007.

19 Human Rights Watch interview with Shoira, Bishkek, July 7, 2007.

20 Human Rights Watch interview with Gulzat and Keres, Bishkek, July 7, 2007.

21 Human Rights Watch interview with Nurbek, Bishkek, November 1, 2005.

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

23 “I love you, life!” by Sasha Sladkyi in Labrys Magazine, no. 1, February 2005.

24 This pattern is documented in “Reconciled to Violence.”

25 Human Rights Watch interview with Gulzat and Keres, Bishkek, July 7, 2007.

26 Human Rights Watch interview with Nurbek, Bishkek, November 1, 2005.

27 Each Kyrgyz regional center should have one women’s shelter, but each shelter typically has only two or three beds. For instance, in Bishkek, with a population close to a million, the local women’s shelter has twelve beds. The shelter provides refuge to victims of trafficking as well as of domestic violence. It is run by a local NGO and financed by international organizations. The state’s role is limited to providing rooms and utilities free of charge.    

28 An activist told Human Rights Watch, “There was a woman or FTM, who went to [a women’s shelter] and they called me. They didn’t know if he was a boy or a girl. He was trafficked from somewhere. He said he was a boy, and he looked like a girl. He was afraid to go out on the street because he was afraid he would be beaten up. He was very scared. We took him to the border and helped him leave the country. We didn’t know how to help him.” Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Anna Kirey, January 29, 2007.

29 Human Rights Watch interview with Djazgul, Bishkek, August 6, 2007.

30 Human Rights Watch interview with Elmira, Bishkek, August 6, 2007.

31 The Labrys emergency shelter works to respond to the urgent needs of lesbian women and transgender men, but has been recurrently threatened by financial limitations, and was forced to close in 2007. In February 2008 Labrys was able to re-open a community center and shelter with six beds and two rooms.

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

33 Human Rights Watch group interview with Labrys members, Bishkek, October 29, 2005.

34 Human Rights Watch interview with Nurbek, Bishkek, November 1, 2005.

35 Labrys interview with Tursunai, Bishkek, November 2005, on file at Human Rights Watch.

36 Unpublished Labrys survey, on file at Human Rights Watch.

37 Labrys interview with Damira, Bishkek, November 2005, on file at Human Rights Watch.

38 Human Rights Watch interview with Gulzat and Keres, Bishkek, July 31, 2007.

39 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Anna Kirey, January 29, 2007.

40 Dennis van der Veur, “Kyrgyzstan: The county of human rights…but not for homosexuals!” a HIVOS/COC Netherlands report, August 2004, pp. 47-51.

41 Human Rights Watch interview with Djazgul, Bishkek, August 8, 2007.

42 Kim, “Lesbian, who is she?” Labrys Magazine, vol. 2, March – April 2005.

43 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Tolekan, May 14, 2007.

44 Human Rights Watch group interview with Labrys members, Bishkek, October 29, 2005.

45 Human Rights Watch interview with Djazgul, Bishkek, August 8, 2007.