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Bride Kidnapping & Child Marriage in Kyrgyzstan: An Explainer

Child marriage and bride kidnapping, despite being criminalized, are still prevalent in many regions of Kyrgyzstan. Be it social and economic reasons, the recent statistics show that approximately 12% of the brides in the country are below the age of 18.

What is Bride Kidnapping?

The Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, with a population of 6.5 million, is one of the world’s epicenters of abduction marriage.

A typical abduction takes place in a public place. For example, a group of young men spots a girl that one has chosen to be his wife and kidnaps her struggling and screaming into a waiting car. The kidnapped girl may or may not be familiar with the man.

The kidnapped woman is taken to the groom’s family’s home, where the women try to convince her to agree to the marriage. At this point, some victims may be rescued by their father or another male relative. But in many cases, being kidnapped is so shameful that the victim or her family often decides to marry rather than risk being stigmatized as a “usedwoman.

Woman holds a drawing depicting a scared woman being taken away in a car
 Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP via Getty Images

Grooms can sometimes use physical violence – though it is not the norm – to coerce women into agreeing to marriage.

A few surveys indicate that most Kyrgyz people, especially those in older generations, still believe bride kidnapping is a harmless custom. However, people younger than 50 are more likely to reject the arrangement, especially when the groom is a stranger to the chosen girl.

However, consensual Bride Kidnapping is also a pre-wedding tradition in many country regions. Many Kyrgyz believe that nowadays, only staged abduction occurs where the bride has agreed to be kidnapped before the marriage.

But, in Kyrgyzstan, some kidnappings are clear non-consensual. For example, in 2018, two women were murdered when they attempted to resist the marriage of their kidnappers, Aizada Kanatbekova and Burulai Turdaaly Kyzy.

As a result of both murders, nationwide protests and protests in their hometowns followed, among one of the largest demonstrations against bride kidnapping witnessed in Kyrgyzstan since public opposition began to emerge in the 1990s.

Child Marriage in Kyrgyzstan

Child marriage is a human rights violation. Despite that, according to data by the official government, about seven to nine thousand young girls are married in Kyrgyzstan before the age of 18. An estimated 500 of whom are aged between 13 and 17 become mothers.

The country’s first crisis center established 25 years ago, SEZIM has received more than 45,000 help calls on their hotlines. Amongst which, about 35,000 have received the needed psychological and legal advice.

Most Kazhak parents in the rural region usually marry their daughter before ninth grade. They are scared that leaving young girls in the city for studies will spoil them, leaving them ineligible for marriage.

Consequently, girls cannot attend school when plunged into family life. Domestic duties, pregnancy, and childcare fall on their shoulders. Their chances of obtaining an education or a professional career disappear, and as housewives, they are wholly dependent on their husbands.

According to Byubyusara Ryskulova, the director of Sezim, one of the major reasons behind such malicious practices in Kyrgyz is the growing influence of religion and the high rate of poverty and unemployment.

Factors Associated with Child Marriage & Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan

A number of social factors contribute to the practice of child marriage, including poverty, a lack of education, the cultural emphasis on honor, and bride kidnapping. Kyrgyzstan’s poorest households have 16% of girls who marry as children, compared to 9% of those from higher-income families.

Compared with girls with a more substantial education, girls with basic education have a higher chance of getting married by age 18 – 4% compared to 33%.

As part of Kyrgyz culture, honor is emphasized in families, and child marriage is associated with the desire to prevent girls from engaging in premarital sex. Children’s weddings are also linked to bride kidnapping, where a girl is snatched away and forced to go to a man’s home, where he and his family slowly persuade her to get married.

The number of bride kidnappings is believed to be around 12,000 per year, and many girls agree to child marriages in order to avoid being kidnapped.

No Fear of Laws

Despite the criminalization of kidnapping and outlawing marriage before 18, child marriage remains a prevalent problem in the region. Instead of legalized marriages, victims are traditionally married in mosques.

The law allows nikah to be held in mosques, but not before the couple reaches the legal age. In addition, the law penalizes underage marriage with a five-year sentence while the punishment for bride kidnapping is ten years.

But, writing a law and implementing it on the ground are two different things, according to Mr. Ryskulova. Justice to the victim in such cases is extremely rare.

Women Migrating to Escape

There is no clear distinction between a “pretend” kidnapping and a “real” kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan since a woman will not be able to truly consent to kidnap if she knows her boyfriend can ignore her wishes easily.

All forms of forced marriage are considered human rights violations by the United Nations. The International Labour Organization estimates that 15.4 million people worldwide are married without their free, informed, and full consent.

There is increasing evidence to suggest that the tradition of “ala kachuu” is not harmless.

Approximately 1,500 women have sought assistance from Ak Zhurok alone this year. They request temporary shelter and employment assistance, property division, and alimony since those who have not formalized their marriages are usually left with nothing.

For example, a Kyrgyzstan survey found that the first children born to mothers who married by kidnapping were significantly smaller than their peers, likely due to higher levels of stress among kidnapped mothers.

The young adult daughters of parents who had kidnapped each other were 50% more likely to migrate for work within the country and internationally.

Declining Cases

Despite the prevalence, recent data highlight a decline in child marriage & bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan.

The international rights organization, the local NGOs, and the government are addressing the problem. The programs aim to strengthen the government institutions, prevent violence, support victims, and assist the women’s movement.

“I am not against starting a family, and I dream about it in the future. But the approach must be primarily the desire of the girl herself and not her parents.”

Aigerim Almanbetova