Central Asia is commonly known in the international community as a landlocked and autocratic region of post-Soviet Asia that is sandwiched between the competing geopolitical interests of two world superpowers. Perhaps, rightly so on the surface. More than seventy years under Soviet rule and evident authoritarianism following the collapse of USSR in 1991 are shaping the politics of the countries, to this day. The Kyrgyz Republic in Central Asia is a special case, despite setbacks in recent years. The country has been known for its continuing efforts to adopt democratic norms of governance since the 1990s. This is the only nation in the entire region where power is shared between the Parliament and President whereas the rest of the regional states are governed by authoritarian regimes.
And yet, even in the Kyrgyz Republic, the rights of women remain a subject of concern regardless of the country’s wider record. In spite of having the domestic laws to protect women’s rights and maintain gender equality, the Kyrgyz state does not seem to have the capacity to sufficiently implement and enforce the legal norms on women’s rights nationwide. More so, it is becoming evident in the last several years that the women’s rights groups and feminist-activists are being targeted by the nationalist and conservative factions; and religious groups increasingly in favour of raising the issues of polygamy, discrimination against women and reproductive rights in the country. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) study on combating gender inequality in political participation in the Kyrgyz Republic indicated that conservatives have significantly intensified their activity in the Central Asian nation after 2010. According to the UNDP ‘When discussing the new version of the Constitution, religious groups attempted to remove the definition of Kyrgyz Republic as a secular state. The secular status was maintained thanks to public campaigns organized by women activists’.
In retrospect, conservatives and religious groups in Kyrgyzstan have taken more proactive steps to influence country’s politics in the years following the second regime change in April 2010, which led to an outburst of mass violence in the North and South of Kyrgyz Republic. Among the most politically active nationalist groups, the Kyrk Choro (Forty Knights) movement is the most aggressive of those whose political activity has become known during and after 2010. Their leader Zamir Kochorbayev claimed Kyrk Choro was part of the ‘April Revolution’ during which movement members protected the Kyrgyz government administration building in Bishkek from looting. He told the local newspaper that the Kyrgyz state agencies collectively financed and supported the Kyrk Choro office in the Kyrgyz capital since 2013.
This question of murky links between nationalist groups such as Kyrk Choro and the government have been raised in the Kyrgyz Republic’s media. It was reported in 2015 that Kyrk Choro had signed a memorandum of cooperation with seven government agencies, including Ministry of Interior, State Committee on National Security and Prosecutor General’s Office on helping the local population in emergency situations and assisting state border service near the frontier. The spokesman for Bishkek city police even told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz language service that the law enforcement agency supported Kyrk Choro activists because they “prevent the spread of abnormalities in the society that are not inherent to the [Kyrgyz] people and not consistent with the national mentality”.  Kyrk Choro activists have reportedly attacked and physically assaulted Kyrgyz women for dating or socializing with non-Kyrgyz men and have staged protests against legislation on reproductive rights supported by United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
There are also individual politicians, parliamentarians and religious figures that consistently promote conservative ideas. Former lawmaker and leader of the conservative political party ‘Erkin Kyrgyzstan’ (Free Kyrgyzstan) Tursunbay Bakir Uulu is the brightest example among those who have publicly defended polygamy and called for the introduction of religious education in schools as well as removal of sex education literature from the education system throughout the nation. Similarly, Kamchybek Joldoshbayev MP from the ’Onuguu-Progress’ (Development-Progress) political faction in the Kyrgyz Parliament supported the legalization of polygamy and suggested a modification to the Constitution to allow the practice of having more than one spouse in the country. Seemingly, some preachers within the muftiate of Kyrgyzstan are cautious to openly back the proposal while arguing that it is permitted to practice polygamy in Islam if certain conditions are met. According to Ergazy Nurmatov, a representative of the muftiate in Osh province, “in the Koran it is allowed to have 2 or 3 wives. But it also says: ‘If you cannot cope with responsibility, then it is better to live with one wife.’ If we, theologians, say: ‘Sharia admits polygamy’, go for it, then we, it turns out, will infringe the rights of women. If the head of the family is able to treat both wives fairly, then he is entitled to a second marriage. We must not forget about the first wife, marrying the second.”
In some specific cases, women activists are reluctant to speak out in public due to concerns for their safety. In one reported incident, young women activists were physically attacked in daylight in the country’s capital Bishkek leaving two female campaigners injured. A female activist based in the southern province of Osh, who was interviewed for this essay and requested the concealment of her name, said there have been numerous attempts by the religious establishment and nationalist movements in the Kyrgyz Republic to exert control over women’s rights in their public speeches and campaigns. To prove her argument she said there’s a case of a former grand mufti Chubak Jalilov who called for polygamy in the country last year, openly defying the constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic that prohibits such acts in the nation. Jalilov’s controversial opinion was backed by religious preacher Ozubek Chotonov who said that “wealthy men should have up to four wives”. Surprisingly, legalization of polygamy was also supported by a few Kyrgyz women. Journalist Nazira Begim published her letter to the President Sooronbay Jeenbekov expressing her personal approval of polygamy and urged the government to decriminalize it in the Kyrgyz Republic. However, a survey in 2017 showed that more than 67% of the population decisively reject the legalization of polygamy in the Central Asian nation.
The latest example of discrimination against women has come to light in recent months when a conservative-leaning group of Kyrgyz migrant men campaigned for introducing legislation in the Kyrgyz Parliament that would ban young women under 26 from traveling abroad. Previously, parliamentarians had adopted a similar travel ban for women up to 22 years of ageto discourage young Kyrgyz women “from traveling to foreign countries and becoming prostitutes”, according to MP who initiated the bill. Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan remains one of the least developed countries with high unemployment and widespread poverty in the region. According to a study compiled by the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, a non-governmental federation for human rights organizations ‘Kyrgyz migrants make up today some 650 thousand to 1 million out of a total population of 5.8 million in Kyrgyzstan. Although migratory flows are mainly comprised of young males, feminization has increased. Currently, nearly 40 percent of Kyrgyz migrants in Russia are women’.
In addition to potential constraints, the Kyrgyz Republic has put legal barriers for country’s women to participate freely in the labour force. Women are excluded from 400 occupations and tasks that had been traditionally reserved for men only under the existing Labour Code. The disparity is observed in the mining industry, energy and gas sectors, construction, transport and the storage of goods. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development determined that there is a “growing gap between men and women’s participation in the workforce in the Kyrgyz Republic. Today women comprise only 40 percent of the Kyrgyz workforce, compared with 44 percent in 1990. Women’s participation in the workforce decreased particularly sharply between 2002 and 2006, a period of economic decline”.
Aida Kasymaliyeva, a female MP in the Kyrgyz Parliament is strongly convinced that politicians and political factions do not see the problem of discrimination of women and gender inequality in the country as a concern and they de-facto oppose real progress with women’s rights. She insists more women in local councils, Parliament and Government will ultimately bring badly-needed change and draw attention to procedural changes that may assist women’s participation in Parliament.
Female lawmaker said: “From 2020, the law will work, when instead of the woman who left the party list, a woman comes on the list, and instead of the next placed candidate if they were – men. This bill was drafted because women came to the parliament on a 30 percent quota, but they were easier to “expel” from the Jogorku Kenesh [parliament] because of the lack of clan and financial support. Let’s see how the law works. And now in the parliament, a group of women are working on the reservation of 30 percent of seats in ayil keyesh [local council]. From year to year, there are fewer and fewer women in local councils, the statistics are depressing. Our goal – 50/50, not a thirty percent quota. But if we talk about reality, it will be extremely difficult to achieve it.”
Kasymaliyeva stressed that religious and conservative groups play a role in formulating negative public opinions regarding the rights of women. “They [both groups] strongly influence young people, values and the formation of negative stereotypes about the activity of women” she said.
Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, believes women activists in Kyrgyzstan and the greater post-Soviet region face difficult tasks in the process of defending their rights. “Truly confronting the serious violations of women’s rights in Central Asia – severe domestic violence, sexual harassment and sex discrimination in the workplace, rampant sexism and economic inequality, the lack of proportionate political representation – requires challenging the very structures of Central Asian society and the most powerful entrenched systems of patriarchy that form their foundation” he replied in comments for this essay. “This is why women’s rights activists in the region have a truly revolutionary task at hand. They face resistance from many corners, including political bureaucracies, religious authorities, but also sometimes even from other women and people who have not been exposed to an understanding of feminism”.
Kyrgyzstan has also been known in the international community for its controversial and widely-accepted practice of abducting and forcing women into marriage, known in popular culture as ‘bride-kidnapping’. The scale of it can be beyond conventional wisdom and comprehension to many observers outside the Kyrgyz Republic. “Between 16 and 23 percent of women in Kyrgyzstan are abducted for marriage, but the rate is much higher among ethnic Kyrgyz where a third of all marriages are due to kidnapping.” concluded a 2017 Duke University study.The Women Support Centre in Kyrgyzstan reported that number of kidnapped women reaches nearly twelve thousand annually.
The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the body that oversees implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), in its 2015 report on Kyrgyzstan urged the Central Asian nation’s government to do more to stop the “persistent abduction of women and girls for forced marriages”. The UN Committee was especially alarmed by the high number of forced marriages and bride-kidnapping cases in Kyrgyzstan.
International organizations slammed the government of Kyrgyzstan in recent weeks for doing little to stop bride-kidnapping following the latest incidents in May-June. 20-year-old medical student Burulai Turdaliyeva was murdered by her abductor in a failed attempt of bride-kidnapping. Within weeks after the deadly kidnapping, 18-year-old woman was abducted in the country’s capital and raped by her kidnapper. “The Kyrgyzstani authorities must take action to promptly bring all alleged perpetrators of these violent and abhorrent crimes to justice, and send a strong message that gender-based violence will not be tolerated,” said in a statement by Amnesty International when it reacted to violence against women in the Kyrgyz Republic.
Subsequently, the kidnapping and forcing women into marriage is a crime in the Central Asian nation that can carry prison sentences of up to 7 and 10 years for bride-kidnapping. “But in reality, it goes unpunished, there is a kind of impunity for this crime in the country.” in its report stated The Forum of Women’s NGOs of Kyrgyzstan. Indeed, only one out of 700 abduction cases is investigated and only one out of 1500 bride-kidnapping crimes leads to sentencing in courts of law for the entire country according to a UN Women assessment. The Forum of Women’s NGOs of Kyrgyzstan believes that the main factors of bride kidnapping are “patriarchal acceptance”, deeply-entrenched “social stereotypes”, “poverty and low social status of victims.” A UNFPA survey in 2016 showed that widespread abduction of young women for forced marriage persist due to the existing “customs and traditions” in Kyrgyz Republic. UNFPA polling indicated that the “vast majority of women (81%) and men (78%) in Kyrgyzstan are negative about bride abduction. At the same time, approximately similar number of women and men (4-5%) are positive about women abducting for marriage and nearly 11% of women and more than 14% of the men are neutral.”
Strikingly, the dysfunctional judiciary of the Kyrgyz Republic is only exacerbating the issue. Amnesty International report indicated that ‘64% of police officers in the southern city of Osh consider ‘bride kidnapping’ to be ‘normal’ and 82% of them believe that the abduction is ‘provoked’ by the women themselves’. Women’s rights groups are strongly convinced that despite the ratification of international conventions on women’s rights including CEDAW and criminalizing the act of bride-kidnapping, access to justice for victims of bride-kidnapping has not improved. Kyrgyz women’s rights non-governmental organizations believe deterioration of the situation with women’s rights is part of Kyrgyzstan’s challenging transition process after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Forum of Women’s NGOs argues the combined effect of the loss of communist ideology and an increasing impact of the religion in the Kyrgyz Republic resulted in a tendency that is designed to “narrow down women’s roles into positions limited to the role of only mother and wife, thus limiting educational, economic and political rights and opportunities for women in the society”. This assessment highlights the rise of anti-women’s rights conservative politicians and nationalist movements; and growing influence of religious figures that are promoting travel bans for young Kyrgyz women, calling for approval of polygamy nationwide and engaging in political campaigning against the law on reproductive rights in Kyrgyzstan.
The ultimate question then, is what can be done to reverse the trend and sustain efforts to make real progress with women’s rights in the Kyrgyz Republic? The country’s donors and global organizations must concentrate their efforts on the transparency of aid distribution at all levels of the Kyrgyz state which is the beneficiary of foreign aid assistance programs that are tied to supporting women’s rights initiatives as well. Kyrgyzstan has a vibrant civil society, including women’s rights NGOs that can effectively contribute to the successful delivery of assistance programs on the ground. It is crucial that international organizations should proactively engage in a long-term cooperation and continuous dialogue with the women’s rights groups.
International development banks, such as European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), World Bank, Asian Development Bank and many other financial institutions that are operating in this Central Asian country could play a positive role through their projects that must include gender equality as part of the required procedure. There are good examples of gender mainstreaming in Kyrgyzstan such as EBRD financed gender inclusion project in the municipal services of the second largest city of Osh. However, the local women’s rights activists and NGOs have been critical of ‘financing gender equality commitments’ in Kyrgyzstan due to ‘methodological difficulties on differentiation and integration of financial resources allocated for gender development. The analysis of foreign aid strategies in terms of gender integration showed weak coordination of donor policies and the absence of mandatory accounting and transparency of aid flows in support of gender equality’. Kyrgyzstan has received more than $9 billion in foreign loans (72%) and grants (28%) for social-economic development over the period of two decades.
Human rights observers say western states and many other governments who traditionally have supported women’s rights in the region need to increase their commitment to programs for early childhood education for girls and women’s empowerment in Central Asia. Steve Swerdlow argued that “they should contribute funds to supporting domestic violence and gender-sensitive training for police. Tajikistan is a good example, where a 2013 law to combat domestic violence on its face is relatively forward-looking and the OSCE has provided gender-sensitive training to staff several police stations with female police officers trained in handling domestic violence complaints. We should see more international support for such initiatives, including further support for shelters and service providers.”
Essentially, it is important for the international community to determine whether the previous decades of insufficient attention to the rights of women in Central Asia may have had a negative impact on the social and political development of the landlocked region. And as the global women’s rights movement is gaining momentum around the world, there is an opportunity for the international organizations to increase support and assistance to the women’s rights groups and organizations in the politically unstable region to promote gender-friendly policies in the state branches and protect the rights of women from an aggressive nationalist-conservative agenda and religious fundamentalism.
About the author: Ryskeldi Satke is a journalist and independent researcher based in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic. He wrote and published reports from Central Asia and Mongolia with international research institutions and global news organizations. His most recent policy-briefs on the regional topics include -“Between East and West: Kazakhstan and China’s new Silk Road”; Barcelona Centre for International Affairs; 2015; “Kyrgyz Republic’s experience with investment treaties and arbitration cases”; Transnational Institute; 2017.
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