Kyrgyzstan is often viewed as a country with vast gender inequality. Reports of “bride kidnapping,” such as in the famous 2011 Vice documentary, have painted a dispiriting picture of the place women have in Kyrgyz society. The state of women’s rights in Kyrgyzstan has seen a vast improvement over the last 15 years, however, and despite the continued prevalence of these and other instances of gender-based violations, the general picture is one of progress.
As an independent nation, the Kyrgyz Republic holds a good record for promoting gender equality. The Central Asian country remains a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which it has committed to since 1996, and like most post-Soviet countries, it has enshrined gender equality in the constitution.
Gaps in legislation and inconsistent legal interpretation have precluded greater progress in the area of sex discrimination, however. For example, until recently, many divorced women could not access child support. In 2018, the country reported 40,000 cases of alimony evasion. But in 2020, partly due to the work of activists, the government helped improve women’s rights in Kyrgyzstan by passing an amendment that made alimony evaders more accountable under family law. Whereas previously fathers who failed to pay child support could get away with just a fine, since 2020, fathers must pay alimony in full.
The marrying of persons under the age of 18 is illegal in Kyrgyzstan yet 13% of Kyrgyz girls are married before their 18th birthday. Failures in law enforcement in conjunction with unemployment and rural poverty have meant the persistence of traditional non-consensual child marriages. Particularly in larger families that lack the income to support numerous children, parents seek to marry their daughters off to wealthier families to alleviate economic hardship. The problem is worse in rural areas, where the poverty rate is higher than the national poverty rate.
Child marriages in Kyrgyzstan are usually the result of “bride kidnapping” or “ala kachuu,” which literally translates to “pick up and run away.” Every year, 7,000 to 9,000 Kyrgyz girls fall prey to this practice, according to government figures. The bride’s parents are often responsible, along with the other family providing the “bride money.” Both parties arrange the marriage for the daughter typically without her consent in an unofficial religious ceremony. These illegal child marriages put young brides at risk of rape and domestic violence.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has worked to reduce child marriages in Kyrgyzstan since 2016. A key example of its work is the 2018-19 Project Addressing Early Marriages, which the British Embassy funded. This project was successful at encouraging the Kyrgyz Ministry of Labour and Social Development to implement the law prohibiting underage religious marriages in a “systematic way.” It also assisted the training of religious leaders in their understanding of marital law and improved the hotline services available to affected women and girls.
As part of the global Spotlight Initiative, a multi-year program that the Kyrgyz government and the European Union supported, U.N. has been implementing sex equality training to improve women’s rights in Kyrgyzstan. Two of the main aims of this program are to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls and provide services to survivors.
Violence against women is a serious problem in Kyrgyzstan and cases have risen since the forced closures of crisis centers during the country’s COVID-19 lockdowns. The last decade has seen improvements though, both in legislation and the provision of survivor support services, such as Spotlight Initiative-funded safe spaces.
Yet despite these improvements, the majority of domestic violence survivors in Kyrgyzstan do not seek help. Family pressure, social stigma and a lack of economic opportunities compel up to 90% of women who have suffered violent treatment from their husbands to return to them, according to U.N. figures. Alternatively, many women escape to pursue unsafe employment opportunities, making them susceptible to trafficking.
The state education system in Kyrgyzstan nominally treats all pupils equally regardless of sex. Girls and boys enjoy near educational parity in Kyrgyzstan at the primary level in terms of enrollment and attendance rates. At the secondary level, however, the net attendance of girls is 3% lower than boys (59% for boys compared with 56% for girls). A U.N. Working Group has found that the principal reasons for girls dropping out of school early are “forced marriage and adolescent pregnancy.” Nevertheless, the 100% adult female literacy rate in Kyrgyzstan as of 2019 should provide a solid basis for women’s future economic participation.
The government is also advancing women’s rights in Kyrgyzstan through efforts to remove negative stereotypes surrounding women in schools. In April 2022, the Kyrgyz government launched a review of all textbooks and teaching materials with the aim of removing any discriminatory content and pictures. Additionally, initiatives such as “Girls in Science,” which has already helped 3,000 girls, aim to increase the proportion of women in underrepresented sectors.
The Kyrgyz Republic has made impressive strides toward gender equality since earning its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. It ranks 82nd out of 162 countries on the Gender Inequality Index in 2021. Today, the main impediments to women’s rights in Kyrgyzstan are intolerant patriarchal attitudes that perpetuate violence against women, notably the ancient practice of “bride kidnapping”, failures in law enforcement and a lack of economic opportunities for women. “Kyrgyzstan stands at a crossroads with an immense opportunity to harness the potential of women,” wrote a group of U.N. human rights experts in April 2022.
– Samuel Chambers