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 mens experiences of domestic violence begin as children in their natal home. However in adolescence, a girls 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 Kyrgyzstanparticularly vulnerable if a womans husband questions her femininity.13
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:
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:
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 girlfriends 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
Nurbek observed, Violence is not limited to the physical. There is also a psychological pressure: these everyday humiliations.21 Nurbeks 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:
The consequences of abuse infuse all areas of peoples lives: pursuing education, keeping a job, staying healthy. When Sashas 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
Abusive family members restrict the movement of the women of their familiesor those they treat as womenin 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 Keress parents invaded her and Gulzats 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. Its been a long time since Ive seen a park or the main square.25
Nurbeks 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.
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 Womens 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 womens 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.
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 stigmaa heterosexual, or homosexual, shame. Elmira told us:
After she met her lesbian loverI never loved anyone so much before, she told usmy mother severely beat me again, and I left home:
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,
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 girls agreement is not needed.34
Tursunai, a 24-year-old lesbian, was raped at a friends home in 2004.
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:
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 cant 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, thats probably why they beat me so badly. They did not beat any of the other girls I had mens 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
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 Id go to the farmers 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 Im kyz, or bala. My gender is discussed on the spot Theres 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 didnt know which would be better, to say I was [a gay man] or to say, no Im 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, Ive 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) womans testimony is included in the report.
14 Human Rights Watch interview with Nurbek, Bishkek, November 1, 2005.
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 womens shelter, but each shelter typically has only two or three beds. For instance, in Bishkek, with a population close to a million, the local womens 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 states 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 womens shelter] and they called me. They didnt 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 didnt 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.