On the eve of their wedding, a third of all Kyrgyz brides hear the traditional mantra: “Every good marriage begins in tears.” The custom known as “ala kachuu” (or “grab and run”) has been on the rise for the last fifty years. Between eight and twelve thousand girls are kidnapped for forced marriage each year. Because of the stigma surrounding the socialization of single men and women, and the rising expense of a traditional dowry, some Kyrgyz men have found kidnapping to be a cheaper alternative to courtship. Under current Kyrgyz law, a man will face a maximum of five years in prison for forcing a woman to marry against her will, but he will face eleven years for stealing cattle. As the Kyrgyz parliament moves to reform the laws concerning bride-kidnapping, it is obligated to abide by the terms of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (Declaration), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriage. The Declaration preceded the drafting of CEDAW, and Kyrgyzstan has since acceded to all three conventions.
Under this practice, when a man decides to take a wife, he will gather a large group of his male peers and plot to get the woman alone. The woman is then forcibly taken to the man’s home, where her future in-laws attempt to subdue her long enough to get a shawl, symbolizing submission, onto her head. The woman is raped on the first night—if she is not, the community will treat her as unchaste anyway. In the morning, the woman must choose between marriage and banishment from society. Eighty percent of kidnapped women choose marriage. Under the ICCPR, Kyrgyzstan is obliged to ensure “no marriage shall be entered into without the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” The Convention on Consent to Marriage raises this bar by requiring that consent “be expressed by them in person after due publicity and in the presence of the authority competent to solemnize the marriage and of witnesses.” However, while formal consent requirements may provide some safeguards for Kyrgyz women, no current international obligations can adequately deal with the reality that many kidnapped women will be viewed as “unfit to marry” after being raped.
The rate of spousal abuse is much higher in forced marriages, where the women are beaten, starved, stabbed, raped, isolated, and often killed. In the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, the United Nations General Assembly urged that member states, “condemn violence against women and should not invoke any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligation with respect to its elimination.” The former UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Radhika Coomaraswamy, also stated that religious and cultural considerations were not legitimate reasons to justify violence against women.
Physical, sexual, and psychological violence within the family; dowry-related violence; and marital rape are included within the definition of “violence against women.”
In 2009, the Special Rapporteur visited Kyrgyzstan and issued a report, which included the issue of bride-kidnapping. Among the numerous recommendations suggested by the report, Kyrgyzstan was urged to “increase the criminal penalty for bride abduction and coercion into marriage, withdraw the possibility of imposing only a fine and provide stringent penalties for conspiracy and aiding and abetting in this crime.” Although Kyrgyzstan is not legally bound by the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, it is obligated to provide the reforms outlined in CEDAW. This includes taking “all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women.” Under the CEDAW requirements, Kyrgyzstan is also legally obliged to “modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.”
For Kyrgyzstan to comply with international standards concerning the rights of women, it is legally obligated to reform its laws and penalties regarding forced marriage. Given the modifications to the Kyrgyz Constitution in 2010, change seems to be on the horizon. The new Constitution includes the following clause, which is a hopeful sign for the necessary reforms: “In the Kyrgyz Republic men and women shall have equal rights and freedoms and equal opportunities for their realization.” The implementation and enforcement of international principles relating to women could prove to be a good starting place for reform.