Each year in Kyrgyzstan, an estimated 12,000 1 young women are kidnapped and forced to marry their abductors. As many of one out of five are raped in the process.
An illegal practice justified by perpetrators as “traditional,” particularly in rural areas of Kyrgyzstan, bride kidnapping not only violates the human rights of women, but can also result in higher rates of depression and suicide among women, higher rates of domestic violence and divorce, and, according to a recent study from Duke University, perhaps even lower birthweights for babies.
What Is Bride Kidnapping?
Although bride kidnapping can be a form of staged elopement, in the majority of cases it is forced abduction, and generally targets young women, including those under 18.
The kidnapping is usually planned in advance, often with the assistance of the man’s family. The most common scenario is that a woman is abducted off the street as she goes about her daily routine by a group of young men, stuffed into a vehicle, and taken to the “groom’s” home, where she is held against her will, subjected to psychological pressure, and sometimes even raped to force her to submit to the marriage. In some cases, the woman may not even have met the man before the abduction.
In Kyrgyz society – and particularly in rural areas – an unmarried woman’s reputation can be irrevocably damaged if she spends even a single night outside her family home. As a result, victims often feel that the honor of their families is at stake, so they have no recourse other than to consent to the marriage. Even their families may pressure them to acquiesce.
For the same reasons, incidents are underreported to the authorities, particularly if the woman stays with her abductor.
Why Does Bride Kidnapping Occur?
Bride kidnapping is socially accepted as a Kyrgyz tradition, although non-consensual bride kidnapping does not appear to have been common before the early 20th century and the practice has been illegal in Kyrgyzstan since1994.
Since Kyrgyzstan’s independence in 1991, Kyrgyz have often asserted their ethnicity and traditions as a way to distance themselves from their Soviet past and affirm the country’s independent identity. Bride kidnapping may be just one way to express that ethnic nationalism.
In its consensual form, bride kidnapping may be a way for couples to avoid parental permission or expensive dowry payments. When non-consensual, it may be that the perpetrator feared rejection or had trouble finding a willing bride, or that the groom’s family wants to avoid a costly large wedding.
Lasting Negative Impact
Bride kidnapping not only violates Kyrgyz law and women’s human rights, but it also causes lasting damage to both victims and families. An NGO-run hotline for domestic violence victims estimates that some 15 percent of their calls are related to bride kidnapping; the same NGO estimates that 60 percent of marriages based on bride kidnapping end in divorce2. There have also been several cases of women committing suicide shortly after being abducted and forced to marry.
Kidnapped brides may not have finished school. After their marriages, many are denied access to educational or economic opportunities, resulting not only in the loss of their personal dreams but also in a negative impact on the national economy at large. According to various studies by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United Nations, and the World Bank, when women work, economies develop faster, and women are likely to spend household income in ways that benefit their children.
Oftentimes, the forced marriage is a religious ceremony performed by a local imam, and not registered with state authorities. This lack of registration can create significant problems later on, because women in unregistered marriages are not entitled to property settlements, alimony, or child support in the case of divorce or abandonment.
Ending Bride Kidnapping
As a participating State of the OSCE, Kyrgyzstan is party to several OSCE commitments related to gender equality, and the Kyrgyz government is making efforts to end bride kidnapping. In 2013, the penalty for bride kidnapping was increased from three to seven years in prison, and in 2016 a new law was enacted against underage marriages and forced marriages that also hold accountable those who perform such marriages and relatives who participate in organizing them.
The government is supporting awareness raising campaigns, and the NGO “Women Support Centre” has been working with the government to monitor the impact of the new legislation. These measures should be stepped up, along with community leaders speaking out, more legal accountability for perpetrators, and increased assistance and recourse for victims.
1 Current statistics are difficult due to the illegality of the practice and underreporting by victims. This estimate is based on figures from the United Nations and several non-governmental organizations working in Kyrgyzstan.
2 According to the Sezim Crisis Center in Kyrgyzstan.