[Stop-traffic] Kidnapping Brides in Kyrgyzstan

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Subject: [Stop-traffic] Kidnapping Brides in Kyrgyzstan
From: Angelika Kartusch (angelika.kartusch@univie.ac.at)
Date: Wed Jan 24 2001 - 14:22:06 EST

Angelika Kartusch

Kidnapping Brides in Kyrgyzstan: Prescriptive Human Rights Measures
by L.M. Handrahan

Source: Human Rights Tribune, March 2000, Vol.7, No.1 Features

From poverty to violence, the situation in which women in Kyrgyzstan
conduct their daily lives is increasingly dismal. The UNDP's 1999
Transition Report notes that a major cost of "transition" has been
rising gender inequality and an increased threat to female personal
security, including domestic violence. In addition to economic/physical
hardships, women find themselves caught in the struggle defined by the
men of Kyrgyzstan as to what it means to be Kyrgyz. Indeed, the
economic and social despair is both a reflection of, and stems from, the
increasing lack of rights that women are afforded in the new

Of all the violations committed against women in the current
process, bride kidnapping is the primary assault. It is a violation that
"de-legitimizes" women as human beings and persistently undermines their
human rights and their social development through their entire lives.

Since Kyrgyzstan declared independence in 1991, the ancient practice of
bride kidnapping, outlawed during Soviet rule, has been on the ascent
largely because it is seen as a positive Kyrgyz cultural identity marker
denied by the Russians. Although still illegal under the Criminal Code
of the
Kyrgyz Republic Normative Acts 1994, bride kidnapping has become
rampant. While there are no published statistics on the number of women
kidnapped as brides, a 1999 survey conducted by the author throughout
the country provided evidence to support the thesis that bride
has become endemic. An estimated one out of ten respondents named
bride kidnapping as their tradition of choice -- that which
Kyrgyz culture.


Modern Kyrgyzstan is a jumble of dramatically confused and overlaid
identities. At the crossroads between the East and the West, with the
Silk Road running through the capital, the people of Kyrgyzstan have for
centuries been subject to prevailing rulers -- from the Mongols, to the
Muslims, to the Russians. After 70 years of Soviet rule and intense
Russification, modern Kyrgyzstan now encompasses over 51 different
ethnic groups, many spilt between Kyrgyzstan and its neighbours.

While a revived male Muslim identity is increasingly significant, for
men, bride kidnapping -- more than any other "renewed tradition" -- has
become the primary act which defines their cultural identity and
Kidnapping has become a means for Kyrygz men to recapture their
selfhood in a confused, desperate and violent, but definitive, act.
women, for their part, are expected to submit to this practice if they
"real Kyrygz women" and want to take part in building their nation. For
kidnapping has come to be understood as fundamental to "authentic Kyrygz
tradition", something neither imposed nor transported but homegrown on
the jailoos (i.e., the mountain pastures) of the Tien Shen mountain

The severe climate and lifestyle of mountain nomads mandated capable
and equal male-female partnerships. Thus, initially bride kidnapping was
perhaps unconsciously devised as a means to insure marriages that could
improve survival rates. In the old tradition, a man asked the father's
permission for a horse race with the daughter in question. The woman
received a 15-second start and a thick leather whip to beat off the man.
the man could catch the woman and kiss her while on horseback, then he
won "the right" to ask for the woman's hand in marriage. Descriptions of
tradition can be found in Chingis Aitmatov's famous "Jamalya". The
tradition is known as kyskuumay -- or "kiss the girl" -- and is now
as a game at festivals representing Kyrgyz traditions.

Bride Kidnapping Today

Bride kidnapping today is radically different. Although many elite
who live in the capital city of Bishkek may dispute the fact that
kidnapping is widespread, the US State Department 1996 Country Report
notes that "violence against women is a problem which the authorities
ignore." Moreover, the divide between rural and urban life styles and
experience is very wide. There are some staged kidnappingsi n Bishkek,
but this normally occurs with the consent of both parties (bride and
and usually after a dating period.

Most often, the kidnappings, which generally occur in the rural areas,
involve three or four men, a car, and lots of vodka. The men go in
search of
either a girl/woman that they know or any women they deem attractive.
Sometimes kidnapping is done in daylight with the woman captured as she
is walking down the street. At other times the kidnapping is planned at
and involves tricking the woman out of her house or yurt (tent). The man
may already have a full wedding feast waiting at home. Once the
kidnapped woman crosses the threshold of the man's home, the oldest
woman in the man's family places the jooluk (scarf) on her head and she
considered married. Some people assert that marriage happens later, with
consummation, which often involves rape.

If after such a marriage the woman decides to escape, she is likely to
rejection by her family and her village on the ground that she has
dishonoured Kyrgyz tradition. Many men and women claim it is an honour
to be kidnapped because bride kidnapping is seen as the ultimate
confirmation of a woman's worth.

Prescriptive Measures

Bride kidnapping and the corresponding violence against women can be
reduced through a comprehensive campaign initiated in cooperation with
the government, local and international NGOs, individual citizens, and
donor community.

First, the government can and should enforce the Declaration on the
Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances, since bride
kidnapping can be considered a type of enforced disappearance; it should
also enforce the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against
-- which prohibits bride kidnapping and all the violence, torture and
that accompanies it and is the direct result of forced marriage; and it
ratify and enforce the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in
Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. The
of this Convention defines bride kidnapping under trafficking in persons

The government should also take proactive measures to create a legal and
social culture which respect women's human rights. Specifically, Kyrgyz
legislation should be amended to make bride kidnapping illegal, and such
law should be enforced with strict fines and imprisonment; the President
Kyrgyzstan should encourage the Askal Courts (village courts of elders)
enforce the international human rights conventions that Kyrgyzstan has
signed; and there should be a mass educational campaign, using radio,
television, and posters, to let people know that bride kidnapping and
violence against women is illegal and counter productive to the
development of Kyrgyzstan. It should also convey the message that bride
kidnapping does not convey a positive identity of Kyrgyzstan to the
international community.

National and international NGOs and donors could undertake a number of
initiatives. The could: launch an advocacy campaign, lobbying the
government and the parliament to implement measures curbing kidnapping;
start an education project in secondary and post-secondary schools to
promote ways other than bride kidnapping for projecting the Kyrgyz
identity; publish collections of the many Kyrgyz fairy tales and oral
histories that project images of strong and courageous women; provide
pro-bono legal assistance to women who wish to bring claims in the local
and national courts for bride kidnapping; and, provide training for
judges, lawyers and other court officials to enforce legislation against
bride kidnapping. As well, individuals -- or NGOs -- could mount a
campaign in Kyrgyzsgan, for women to fill out the confidential
"violence against women" information form and send these to the UN
Rapporteur on violence against women.

Such a campaign could serve to highlight the issue nationally and
internationally. In sum, bride kidnapping is not a forward seeking or
healthy means to reassert a strong Kyrygz identity.

Not only is this a violation of women's rights and dignity but, like all
human rights violations, it serves to injure and reduce the dignity of
the community by contributing significantly to the downward spiral of
emotional and physical well-being of women in Kyrgyzstan. Thus, until
Kyrgyz government takes serious measures to eradicate bride kidnapping,
it is
unlikely that Kyrgyzstan will succeed in human, economic, and political

* Lori .M. Handrahan is director of the Finvola Group, a human rights
gender consultancy. She recently spent two in Kyrgyzstan working for the
UNDP and UNHCR, and completing a Ph.D. dissertation on gendered
ethnicity and democracy in Kyrgyzstan at the Gender Institute of the
London School of Economics and Political Science. The author can be
reached at: L.M.Handrahan@lse.ac.uk

Angelika Kartusch
Ludwig Boltzmann Institut für Menschenrechte (BIM)
Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights
Hessgasse 1, A-1010 Wien
tel +43-1-4277-27438, fax -27430

bim on the web: http://www.univie.ac.at/bim
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