IV. Background and Context

Legal and Social Status of Women in Kyrgyzstan

Understanding the difficulties facing lesbians and transgender men in Kyrgyzstan entails understanding the troubled situation of women more generally.

In Kyrgyzstan, communities and families have strict assumptions about how women and men should look and act. Standards vary with ethnicity, region, and religion, but compliance with traditional roles for women and men is generally strictly enforced. Women’s autonomy is hindered by domestic violence, their low economic status, and by social expectations that they be dutiful wives and mothers. The 2006 Human Rights Watch report “Reconciled to Violence” details the severity of abuses such as domestic violence, forced marriage, bride kidnapping, and rape in some women’s lives.  

The Kyrgyzstan government’s own report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee) in 2002 acknowledged that barriers to the achievement of women’s equality in the country included “the growth of poverty and unemployment, a low level of social protection, the low participation of women in decision-making, and the persistence of gender stereotypes and traditions.”69 

In its 2004 review of Kyrgyzstan, the CEDAW Committee expressed concern about the status of women in Kyrgyzstan, growing rates of poverty among women, rising female unemployment, and women’s low status in the labor market. The committee found that “[u]nemployment among women is rising steadily, and some 53.3 per cent of the total number of unemployed are women.”70 The Committee also pointed to “the persistence of discriminatory cultural practices and stereotypes related to the roles and responsibilities of women and men in all areas of life, and the deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes, which undermine women’s social status and are obstacles to the full implementation of the Convention.” It urged the government “[to] take action to change stereotypical attitudes and perceptions as to men’s and women’s roles and responsibilities.”

Domestic violence and underemployment also limit Kyrgyz lesbians and transgender men’s capacity to afford an adequate standard of living or to live independently. Lack of gender parity in employment severely restricts their autonomy, increasing the likelihood that they will be dependent on families, forced into marriage, and incapable of leaving domestic abuse. Stereotypical attitudes subject both to discrimination and violence for their failure to conform.

Family life

Very few women in Kyrgyzstan live independently.71 The vast majority move directly from living with their parents in homes dominated by their fathers to living in homes dominated by their husbands. While women have working niches in many economic areas, from agriculture to bazaar trading, these activities—which are often survival strategies for families endangered by economic insecurity—generally do not bring them rights within the home. Often, any sign of women’s independence leads to retaliatory violence.

Domestic violence is a serious problem in Kyrgyzstan. Experts who work with victims of domestic violence agree that domestic violence is pervasive in Kyrgyzstan and that it affects women in every social stratum and region of the country. Local experts who have closely tracked the problem for years point to increasing violence. One government official with responsibility for women and family concerns told Human Rights Watch in 2005, “As an expert on these issues, I can say that the situation of violence against women is getting worse.”72

In 2003, the Kyrgyz government enacted a “Law on Social-Legal Protection from Domestic Violence” to address the issue. The law defines domestic violence as “any intentional act by one family member directed towards another family member if such act limits [the] victim’s legal rights and freedoms, inflicts physical or mental suffering and causes moral harm; or contains a threat to the physical or mental development of a minor member of the family.” Notably, the law covers all forms of family relationships, prohibiting violence by parents and siblings in addition to violence by spouses, and is gender neutral.73

Especially important is the provision (article 21) on orders of protection, granted against acts of violence that a perpetrator “committed or attempted to commit.” The law envisions two types of such orders: temporary restraining orders issued by law enforcement agencies and protective court orders. The former entitles a victim to immediate police protection for up to 15 days, with police assuming an obligation to investigate the complaint and to monitor the abuser’s behavior. Protective court orders issued by judges last for terms of one to six months. Violating a police protection order brings a fine or 10 days’ administrative arrest; violating a court order is punishable by a larger fine and 10 to 15 days’ administrative arrest.  Effectively implementing this law would have a major, positive impact on the rights of lesbians and transgender men.

The law has not been effectively implemented. In 2008 the Forum of Women's NGOs of Kyrgyzstan reported that, over the five years since the law came into effect, the National Statistics Committee showed 4,651 women seeking assistance from shelters and other organizations, and 4,135 cases of violence against women registered by state and non-state institutions. Despite these numbers, courts issued only 18 protection orders against domestic violence. (Police still do not maintain disaggregated data on domestic violence, including adequate statistics on police protection orders). According to the Forum, in the Kochkor district of Naryn province, 150 domestic violence complaints were filed with police in 2006—but only 19 cases reached courts, and only four protection orders were  issued as a result.74 People already dissuaded by stigma and prejudice from making their complaints public will be disproportionately affected by such an atmosphere of impunity, as will people who already fear that police and judges will be indisposed to give them a fair hearing. Ensuring the law’s protections are fully realized is critical for all Kyrgyzstan’s women.

Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and the Law in Kyrgyzstan

“We don’t put you in jail; we don’t beat you; what more do you want?”75: The legal status of homosexual conduct

In Soviet-era Kyrgyzstan, sex between women, unlike sex between men, was never criminalized. Under the law, adult men engaging in consensual sex could be sentenced to up to two years’ imprisonment. Reliable data on the how the law was enforced is scarce. 76  Available information suggests that the sanctions, while specifically targeting men, more broadly encouraged social stigma, fostered homophobia, and kept most lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people firmly concealed in fear. 77

On January 1, 1998, seven years after declaring its independence from the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan adopted a new Criminal Code, decriminalizing consensual sex between adult men. However, legal differentiations continue: contemporary Kyrgyz law confines the legal definition of rape to acts committed by a man against a woman.  The act of a man raping a man (or a woman raping a woman) is consigned to a separate provision with a (potentially) lesser penalty.78

Decriminalizing homosexual conduct has not significantly diminished discrimination. Robert Oostvogels, author of a 1997 World Health Organization (WHO) report on men who have sex with men (MSM) in Kyrgyzstan, told Human Rights Watch “No measures were taken to spread awareness among the general population and I am afraid it was mainly a change on paper. In reality, nothing much changed.”79Reports of police harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people continue, and the government has taken no further steps to secure their rights, such as introducing legislation to protect against discrimination, to ensure equal treatment for all kinds of families, or prevent or punish violence.80  

Ministry of Health policy allows transgender people in Kyrgyzstan in principle to undergo sex reassignment surgery (SRS), and afterward they may legally change their gender in official identity papers.81 However, SRS is not now performed in the medical system in Kyrgyzstan—and complete SRS is a condition for legal identity change. A Ministry of Health representative told Labrys in May 2007 that it recognized the need for improved procedures for legal identity change and that it was developing a more streamlined process.82 In the meantime, transgender men (and women) experience tremendous hardship as a result of having a legal identity in limbo.

“It would be better if you were a prostitute or a drug addict than a lesbian” 83: Social perceptions of sexual orientation and gender identity

Though the Soviet penal code’s criminalization of homosexual conduct has been lifted, it continues to resonate in the public perception of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Kyrgyzstan. One of its legacies may be the pervasive attitude that lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people are criminals.84 

Another myth is that lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender men are mentally ill. Until 1999, “homosexual orientation” was included in the “personality disturbances” section of the diagnostic manual issued by the Ministry of Health.85 Forced psychiatric treatment was a persistent threat. “Because male homosexuality was punishable by law, psychiatric treatment appears to have been largely directed against lesbians,” one human rights organization reported in the 199os. “A pervasive conviction that homosexuality is indeed a mental illness … provided the conditions for the forced psychiatric treatment of lesbians.”86

Cultural understandings shift slowly. Feruza, a woman who was once married and has a son, told Human Rights Watch that when she found love with another woman, her sister considered her “really sick…[she]  thinks that I have completely gone out of my mind and that I have a mental disorder.”87 

Religious authorities preach and foster prejudice.  In a country that is 75% Muslim,88 clerics’ approach to homosexuality has great impact. Mufti Lugmar azhi Guahunov, then the leader of the Muslim umma in Kyrgyzstan, said in 2005, “I think we should unite our efforts and maybe start punishing people for such behavior. Thousands of Muslims will be punished by Allah for not preventing, not stopping, lesbians and homosexuals.”89 

Likewise, the Russian Orthodox Church has voiced hostility to lesbians and gays. Igor Dronov, a senior Russian Orthodox priest in Bishkek, declared that tolerating them “washes out the essence of absolute moral values. Of course, our church will not fight homosexuality with weapons, but we will never tolerate it.”90 In 2008, the Russian Orthodox Church in Kyrgyzstan denied a press report that it accepted lesbians and gays as worshippers, with priests calling a press conference to declare the church “has never supported, does not support, and will never support sodomites.”91


69 The committee considered the second periodic report of Kyrgyzstan (CEDAW/C/KGZ/2 and Add.1) at its 632nd and 633rd meetings, on January 14, 2004 (see CEDAW/C/SR.632 and 633). “Report of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women,” Thirtieth session (January 12-30, 2004), Thirty-first session (July 6-23, 2004), General Assembly Official Records, Fifty-ninth Session, Supplement No. 38 (A/59/38), United Nations, New York, 2004.

70 Ibid.

71 Even orphaned girls and widows, typically assisted by extended family networks after the death of their parents or husbands, are unlikely to live alone.

72 Human Rights Watch interview with Taalaygul Isakunova, Bishkek, October 31, 2005. At the time, Isakunova was an expert for the National Council under the President of the Kyrgyz Republic on Women, Family, and Gender Development. Isakunova subsequently left that position.

73 Law on Social-Legal Protection from Domestic Violence, 2003.

74 Forum of Women's NGOs of Kyrgyzstan, “Information for the CEDAW Pre-Session (42nd CEDAW session),” 2008,

75 University professor’s comment to his lesbian student, as recounted by the student in Human Rights Watch group interview with Labrys members, Bishkek, October 29, 2005.

76 Official estimates suggest approximately 50,000 men were imprisoned in jails or sent to camps across the Soviet Union on charges related to homosexual conduct from the passage of the Stalin-era law till the USSR’s dissolution; however the real figure is believed to be significantly higher.(“Kyrgyzstan: Focus on Gay and Lesbian Rights,” Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), January 11, 2005, Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Justice officials informed Amnesty International that no criminal cases had been brought under this article in 1991, though there were convictions in 1990 (“Kyrgyzstan: AI Concerns in Europe” Issue November 1991 - April 1992 [EUR 01/03/92];  June 1992, Research on men having sex with men in Kyrgyzstan conducted in 1997, the year before country repealed the old Soviet law, found that “The police take men to their station if caught in the act (beatings are normal)” (Dr. Robert Oostvogels, “Assessment of Men who have Sex with Men in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan,” UNAIDS 1997, on file at Human Rights Watch).

77 “The Rights of Lesbians and Gay Men in the Russian Federation,”a report by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, 1994.

78 Article 129 of the criminal code states that “The act of rape, i.e. the sexual act with the use of physical force or the threat of its use, upon a female victim, as well as taking advantage of the helpless state of a female victim, -is punishable by imprisonment of five to eight years...Article 130 states that comparable “homosexual or other sexual acts with the use of physical force”—the rest of the language is parallel—“are punishable by imprisonment of three to eight years.”

79 E- mail to Human Rights Watch from Robert Oostvogels, February 2, 2007.

80 Kyrgyzstan’s HIV/AIDS law (“Act No. 149 of 13 August 2005 on HIV/AIDS in the Republic of Kyrgyzstan” adopted July 1, 2005) contains the only positive or neutral reference to sexual orientation or gender identity in Kyrgyz law or public policy,   committing the state to address the needs of men who have sex with men in the context of HIV/AIDS service provision, but making no reference to lesbians, bisexual women, or transgender people.

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

82 Ibid.; e-mail to Human Rights Watch from Anna Kirey, August 16, 2008.

83 One mother’s comment upon learning her daughter was a lesbian, recounted by the daughter in Human Rights Watch group interview with Labrys members, Bishkek, October 29, 2005.

84 This may, at least in part, be due to the government’s management of decriminalization. It did nothing to educate the public when it repealed the law against male homosexual conduct. Gulnara Kurmanova of the HIV/AIDS outreach organization Tais Plus reports,, “Until now many people, including policemen, do not know that the law in our country does not prosecute homosexuality” (email to Human Rights Watch from Gulnara Kurmanova, February 2, 2007).

85 Mezhdunarodnaya statisticheskaya klassifikatsiya bolezney, travm i prichin smerti (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems), 9th edition, adapted for use in the USSR, Moscow 1982, sec. V.

86 “The Rights of Lesbians and Gay Men in the Russian Federation,”a report by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, 1994.

87 Human Rights Watch interview with Feruza, Bishkek, November 1, 2005.

88 “Kyrgyzstan” in CIA World Fact Book (2007),, (accessed May 24, 2007).

89 “Kyrgyzstan: Focus on Gay and Lesbian Rights,” “Focus on Gay and Lesbian Rights,” IRIN, January 11, 2005, at (accessed August 2, 2008).

90 Ibid.

91 “Russian Orthodox Church  Has Never Supported, Does Not Support, and Will Never Support Sodomites,” press release by the Central Asian eparchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, March 3, 2008,, accessed September 4, 2008.