A top human rights advocate hopes that new efforts will end Kyrgyzstan's widespread and violent practice of “ala-kachuu” or bride kidnapping.
Through education initiatives and better law enforcement, “I believe the practice can be significantly reduced very quickly,” Russell Kleinbach, a professor emeritus in sociology from Philadelphia University, told CNA.
Around one-third of Kyrgyz women today, some as young as 13 years old, are abducted and forced into marriage.
Bride kidnapping in the central Asian country typically involves a young man and his male friends or relatives taking a young woman by force or deception to the home of his parents or a near relative. If the young woman resists the marriage, she is often kept overnight or raped.
This threatens her with the cultural shame of no longer being considered a “pure” or marriageable woman if she manages to escape.
Kleinbach, who co-founded the women's advocacy group, Kyz Korgon Institute, said the practice has had devastating effects on the country's women in recent years.
“For most, their education stops, their choice of spouse is denied, most lose their choice of occupation and place of residence,” he said.
“All are at increased risk of domestic violence, divorce, and suicide.”
Kidnapping victims often suffer domestic abuse not only from the husband, but also from his family members. Once married, brides can also be expected to take on substantial home or farm-related work and have a household status similar to a servant.
Kleinbach said a common abduction scenario involves a young woman – sometimes an acquaintance or complete stranger of the young man – being taken by force to the abductor's house. Once there, the man's female relatives try to calm the woman and convince her to tie a white wedding scarf on her head. The traditional white shawl is called a “jooluk” and is a symbol of her submission.
Although many of the women try to fight their captors, around 80 percent eventually succumb, often at the urging of their own parents. When the woman agrees, all relatives are notified and a marriage celebration takes place in the following few days.
Kathleen Merkel, who traveled to Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and 2011 for her work with the U.S. bishops' aid agency, Catholic Relief Services, recalled an unsettling experience where she learned about the prevalence of the practice.
“I first heard about bride kidnapping when I was invited to a family wedding out in the village of one of my Kyrgyzstani colleagues,” she told CNA.
As the night went on and it got late, she remembers one of her co-workers calling her to make sure she hadn't been kidnapped.
“I was absolutely certain he was joking until I heard the serious note of concern in his voice,” Merkel said.
“Like me, he was a foreigner, and unnecessarily alarmed about a context that we did not totally understand – I was having a wonderful time and was treated as an honored guest by my colleague’s family,” she explained.
“But it was at that rather inopportune moment that I learned that bride kidnapping is actually still practiced in the country.”
“I must admit, I kept my eyes and ears open until all the rowdier revelers had gone home and I was safely tucked in for the night on the family’s comfy floor mattresses.”
Merkel later met a Kyrgystani female college student on a plane. Correctly guessing that Merkel worked for an non-government organization, the young woman asked her if she had come to the country to educate people about bride kidnapping.
“She proceeded to tell me that growing up, she did not know that bride kidnapping was illegal in Kyrgyztan,” but because of what a human rights group taught her, the girl was able to talk openly with her parents about her fears, Merkel said.
The young woman told her that it's customary for a girl to write a letter to her parents once she's kidnapped to ask permission to marry the boy. However, the girl’s parents are expected to give their consent, as the she is already in her “new home” by the time her parents are notified.
“Together she and her parents devised a code,” Merkel said.
“With her newfound knowledge of her legal rights, this girl was able to tell her parents that if she puts a period at the end of the final sentence on the letter, that means that she would indeed really like to stay at her new home and marry this boy.”
However, if she were to leave the period off the sentence, it would be a cry for help, and her parents would come rescue her.
“Luckily for this girl it never came to that,” Merkel said.
“To be completely fair, I’m sure there are examples throughout the country of men and women who have started their marriage in this non-consensual way, but have grown to love each other and had a fruitful family life as a result,” said Merkel.
“I just don’t see how the end could justify the means.”
Although the custom allegedly dates several centuries back, Prof. Kleinbach said that prior to the Soviet era in the 1920-90s, the practice of bride kidnapping “was very uncommon and a serious legal and cultural violation.”
But the seizure of private property during Soviet rule caused less family resources for gifts, bride price and dowry – and more freedom of choice in selecting marriage partner. As a result, a benign “consensual kidnapping” between couples started to emerge.
This form of elopement became popular as a less expensive wedding alternative and an effective way to avoid marriages arranged by parents.
However, the practice gradually became more prevalent during the Soviet era and “increasingly non-consensual,” Kleinbach said.
Given the strong cultural expectation for traditional weddings and expensive gift-giving that still exists today, kidnapping is seen by young men and their families in modern Kyrgyzstan as faster and less pricey.
Kleinbach said the practice is fueled by ignorance on the part of citizens and law enforcement officials that the practice is illegal under Kyrgyz law.
Local laws provide “nominal guarantees” of sexual equality and the government has ratified all major human and gender rights conventions. But often “these laws and conventions are not enforced, and sometimes not even acknowledged as legitimate,” Kleinbach said.
Recently, however, the country's Parliament proposed a law banning marriage without prior registration and prohibiting marriage of girls under age 16. Kleinbach said a major goal of the bill is to prevent clergy from performing non-consensual kidnap marriages that have not been registered with the state.
The registry certificates also protect women’s property rights and children born from the marriage.
“If this bill becomes law, information about it will become part of our public education project,” Kleinbach said.
The Philadelphia University professor also sees signs that the anti-bride kidnapping movement is beginning to gain traction in the country. He points to education programs, demonstrations, TV shows featuring debates on the issue, parliament activity and U.N. convention teams approaching the Kyz Korgon Institute for collaboration.
It also helps that the movement is aided by Kyrgyzstan's relatively high literacy rate, and widespread access to media.
More recently, protests took place in late May after two local women committed suicide within months of each other as a result of being abducted.
About 200 people gathered in the northern Issyk-Kul Province, home to 20 year-old victims Venera Kasymalieva and Nurzat Kalykova, who were both students.
The rally, called “Spring without Them,” was organized by local women's groups and other activists, who called on authorities and community leaders to put an end to the practice of bride abductions.