One night, after Asya’s partner severely beat her, she called the police in desperate need of help. Expecting some kind of response, she was shocked when the police asked her if her partner had tried to stab or kill her. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), when she told them no, the police responded, “Okay, you call me when he tries to kill you, because we have more important things to do.”
Asya’s story is common in Kyrgyzstan. Women and girls in Kyrgyzstan suffer high rates of domestic violence, yet many cases go unreported. According to Kyrgyzstan’s 2012 Demographic and Health Survey, twenty-three percent of women age fifteen to forty-nine have experienced either physical or sexual violence. However, the problem is bigger than mere prevalence. Police and the judicial system often fail to prosecute perpetrators, as detailed by HRW.
HRW issued a report on October 9th documenting what it describes as the government’s failure to provide sufficient support, protection, and remedies to domestic violence survivors. The report includes ninety interviews with survivors, police, lawyers, and shelter staff members. These accounts describe cases of severe physical and psychological domestic abuse of women, including concussions and skull fractures, broken jaws, stab wounds, severe beatings to the point of miscarriage, and numerous other acts of violence.
This report serves as an update to an earlier report issued in 2006, which highlighted the systemic problems of violence and bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan. Since the release of that report, the government has introduced several amendments and publicity campaigns highlighting the need for social change and greater protection for women.
In 2013, the government increased penalties for bride kidnapping. The next year, Kyrgyzstan entered into a “Partnership for Democracy” with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which affirmed its commitment to international human rights and to combating violence against women. In 2015, the United Nations Trust Fund to End Violence against Women awarded a large grant to Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Social Development to fund improved responses to reported cases. Kyrgyzstan has also ratified several international human rights treaties that require the government to protect women from violence and discrimination, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). CEDAW outlines what constitutes discrimination against women, as well as the specific obligations of States Parties to eliminate such practices. Kyrgyzstan ratified CEDAW in 1997, and the current gap in the legal system is potentially in contravention of its obligations thereunder. Furthermore, the State has not ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, which provides detailed guidance on measures to address domestic violence.
Kyrgyzstan’s current efforts to end violence against women are insufficient, according to HRW. Its report describes how women in Kyrgyzstan continue to face barriers to equality, such as limited assistance, protection, or justice for acts of domestic violence. Cultural attitudes still play a significant role in the prevalence of violence and the reluctance of police to pursue perpetrators. One view is that charging perpetrators of domestic violence would lead to social upheaval due to the disillusion of families by separating husbands from their wives and children. Women who want to leave abusive relationships struggle to do so because of the limited access to shelters and other services. Furthermore, many victims feel trapped because they depend on their abuser or their abuser’s family for food and shelter, according to the recent HRW report.
Courts tend to emphasize that reconciliation is the best outcome for the family. Additionally, there is a significant amount of victim blaming and stigma attached to domestic violence. One victim reported to HRW that, after attempting to get a divorce, the judge refused and asked, “Why would he beat you? You were not doing the housework? Or are you sleeping around?”
The most recent HRW reports notes that, in some cases, police refer victims who have been seriously injured to community elders’ courts, called “aksakals,” in an attempt to reconcile the couple and preserve the social dynamic. Kyrgyzstan’s current domestic violence laws allow police to issue temporary or long-term orders that specify protective measures for victims. The laws also prevent the perpetrator from contacting the victim in fear of penalization. In many of the cases documented by HRW, the police did not issue a protective order and often the police did not inform victims that the option exists. Furthermore, lawyers and judges told several victims that they did not meet the criteria for long-term protection services, despite having sustained significant injuries.
Prosecutors often treat domestic violence as a minor offense. According to government data for 2013, fewer than half of registered domestic violence complaints went to court. Of those cases, only seven percent constituted criminal offenses. The rest resulted in small penalties that were often not designated as domestic violence.
Survivors who do come forward, despite harsh social pressures, often feel trapped due to a lack of social services. There are few local organizations that can provide services, such as basic food and shelter, if the abuser’s family refuses to do so. Staff at nongovernmental crisis centers told HRW that they are struggling to remain open and are forced to eliminate programs due to lack of funding.
Proposed legislation is currently under review that would build on the 2003 law to expand and clarify the responsibilities of the state when dealing with domestic violence. HRW has called on the government to ensure that police, prosecutors, and judges fulfill their duties under the domestic violence laws and that all officials who fail to comply face discipline. It has called for the establishment of clear protocols with specific guidelines and mandatory training curriculums in line with international standards on domestic violence response.