Bride-kidnapping debate divides Kyrgyzstan

By Abdujalil Abdurasulov
BBC News, Bishkek

Image source, UNiTEKG
Image caption,
Campaign groups are working to promote awareness of the law

Kyrgyzstan's parliament is poised to vote on legislation that would toughen the penalty for bride kidnapping.

The bill has caused heated debate, splitting parliament and society into those who defend it as a tradition and those who see it as a violent crime.

The practice of bride kidnapping is widespread in Kyrgyzstan. According to the ombudsman's office, some 8,000 girls are kidnapped for forced marriage every year across the country.

The Women's Support Centre (WSC) in Bishkek puts that figure even higher at almost 12,000 cases a year. Most of these cases happen in poor and rural areas.

WSC is part of the network that campaigns against bride kidnapping. Zabila Matayeva, 38, became a WSC volunteer last year after a family tragedy. Her sister, Cholpon Matayeva, was kidnapped for marriage by a husband who beat her frequently.

When she finally demanded a divorce after a decade of marriage, he stabbed her to death. He has been jailed for 19 years.

Cholpon barely knew her husband when he abducted her at the age of 19. She did not want to marry him but like many other women, she was afraid to leave him out of shame.

"It's like a law, if you are kidnapped then you must stay," Zabila said. "[Cholpon] faced enormous psychological pressure from the groom's relatives. They kept telling her that they too had been kidnapped, and [that] entering the house with tears leads to a happy life afterwards.

"She was lost. Cholpon thought her life would end if she left the [groom's] house. This would bring shame on her and the family. She would need to leave the village. So she stayed."

In many cases, the abducted woman is forced to stay for a first night that is effectively rape. After that, most women agree to get married, because otherwise they face huge stigma. If they decide to leave they can be treated as damaged goods, unable to remarry.

Over the past year, activists from various women's organisations have united in "Campaign 155", named after the criminal code article on bride kidnapping.

They have held bike rides, street sketches, seminars and other activities to draw attention to the current legislation.

They bring cases like Cholpon's to argue that no marriage can be happy if it starts from violence.

'Our tradition'

Under the existing law, a man faces a fine or maximum of three years in prison for abducting a woman for marriage against her will. The new bill proposes increasing that to seven years, after an initial suggestion to make it 10 years.

"It is outrageous," says Rimma Sultanova from WSC. "The punishment for cattle-stealing is 11 years and for abducting a girl is maximum three years."

Ainuru Altybayeva, an MP who initiated the bill, says very few cases get to trial under the current legislation.

The main reason is that legal action starts only after a victim files a suit. However, this rarely happens because victims of bride kidnapping do not generally want to draw attention to themselves.

But if the changes are adopted then bride kidnapping will be categorised as a grave offence.

"This will mean that the state in the face of prosecutors and law-enforcement bodies can initiate legal action themselves without waiting for the victim's lawsuit," Mrs Altybayeva explained.

Not all legislators support the bill though. Some claim that it goes against Kyrgyz tradition and may have serious implications for society.

"We will put all men in Kyrgyzstan in prison if we increase the punishment for bride kidnapping," said MP Kojobek Ryspaev, during a discussion of the bill at a parliamentary session earlier this year.

Opponents of the changes claim bride kidnapping plays an important role in society.

Parents and relatives relentlessly pressure young men in Kyrgyzstan to marry after they reach a certain age. For many, especially for poor families, this is the cheapest and quickest way to marry their son.

If the new law is passed then all relatives who are somehow involved in the process of kidnapping may face a prison term.

"This is a tradition that existed and will exist no matter what law you adopt," Bishkek resident Bobek, 48, said, voicing an opinion that appeared to be shared by many. He said the law would only fuel corruption, as men would bribe their way out of trouble.

Another MP, Kurmantay Abdiyev, believes that the legal changes will have little effect. "By toughening sanctions we will not prevent people from committing a crime," he told the BBC.

Mrs Altybayeva agrees that new laws will not solve the problem right away. But she says they can demonstrate the government's stance on the phenomenon.

"By declaring bride kidnapping a crime and not a tradition the government can help to change people's minds," she said.