[fusion_text]‘Imagine a country where, on average, every 40 minutes a girl is kidnapped for the ostensive purpose of marriage: that is 32 girls per day, for an approximate total of 11,800 kidnapped girls per year. Welcome to Kyrgyzstan, where this has been the grim reality of countless women for decades’ Franco Galdini, Radio Free Europe, 29 May 2014.

What is Bride Kidnapping

Ala Kachuu which translates to ‘to grab and run or ‘to take and run away’ (commonly known as ‘bride kidnapping’) is believed to stem from the nomadic lifestyle Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Uzbek, Turkmen and Tajik people lead, when the men would snatch their future wives while on horseback.

Bride kidnapping takes two forms: light and extreme. In the first, a couple escape the expense of a wedding. The groom kidnaps the bride; she knows it will happen but not when. She is taken to the groom’s parents’ house. A headscarf is highly symbolic. When she agrees to wear it, she is taken to have positively signified her approval to proceed with the marriage.

In the extreme case, a man kidnaps any woman he sees on the street, or anywhere for that matter, as his ‘to-be bride’ irrespective of that woman’s consent. Non-consensual bride kidnapping is popularly accepted as a traditional practice in Kyrgyzstan, even though it violates fundamental human rights.[1]

This video by VICE titled ‘Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan’ vividly shows the atrocities faced by the women there: the narrator even went as far as to comment that most people do not have the idea that the act itself is illegal.

Prevalence as ‘Custom’: The history of this practice does not have violent roots. This tradition in the past was a way to express dissatisfaction for the bride and groom towards their families. Nowadays, this is nothing but an instrument to wreak havoc on the lives of the women of Kyrgyzstan. According to one Kyrgyz folkloric tradition, namely kyz ala kachuu,[2] a boy and girl in love might elope ie he would take the girl and run away. During the Soviet period, the previously rare, romantic and consensual kyz-ala-kachuu emerged as an alternative to patriarchal arranged marriage. It was gradually transformed and defined as a ‘tradition’.[3]

The tradition is not supported by any legal/religious text of Kyrgyzstan. Bride kidnapping without consent is not found in the Kyrgyz epics. Forced marriage is not allowed in Kyrgyz traditional customary law of Adat, which requires prior consent of the young woman. The book ‘Iz Obriadovoi Zhizni Kirgizov’ studies specific cases of bride kidnapping in the past of Kyrgyz people and states that though it occurred rarely, such actions were punished.[4]

Cynthia Werner, head of the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M University, collected data on bride kidnapping in Kazakhstan (a country with which Kyrgyzstan shares its northern border alongside cultural similarities) and found that it is a common practice in rural villages of the southern part of the country, where almost every Kazakh girl is married to her kidnapper. These marriages can occur both consensually, as a staged elopement, and non-consensually. Werner’s research showed that domestic abuse was more prevalent in the Southern region of Kazakhstan, which is where bride kidnapping is most popular, suggesting a positive correlation between the two. ‘Almost 90% of the domestic violence cases included marriages that involved bride kidnapping,’ stated Werner.

Laws on Bride Kidnapping

Domestic Laws:

Under the Criminal Code of Kyrgyz Republic, abduction for the purpose of marriage or bride kidnapping as well as forced m­­arriage is punishable by 5 to 7 and a half years in prison or up to 10 years if the survivor is under 18.[5] Criminal Code amendments in 2016 criminalized religious marriage ceremonies, or nikah, that involve a child in a move to curb child and forced marriages often not registered with the state. This allows the prosecution of religious authorities who perform child marriages, parents or other adults who facilitate such marriages and adults who marry children with a penalty of two to six-and-a-half years in prison.[6]

The Family Code 2003 sets the legal age of marriage at 18 – with possible exceptions for ‘valid reasons’ – and stipulates that marriage require both parties’ voluntary consent.[7]

Forced sexual intercourse following bride kidnapping is prosecuted under article 129 of the Criminal Code (‘rape’) only if the victim indicates in her complaint that she was raped due to the private-public nature of this crime.[8]

However, Kyrgyz courts rarely make full use of the increased penalties for bride kidnapping introduced by the 2013 amendments to articles 154 (2) and 155 (2). NGOs informed that the courts tend to impose suspended sentences when the convict is a first-time perpetrator and that in some cases, they treat bride kidnapping as an administrative offence and merely impose a fine despite the more severe penalties prescribed by law.[9]

Treaty Obligations of Kyrgyzstan:

Non-consensual kidnapping violates article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 1 of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women.[10]

Kyrgyzstan has acceded to the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) 1969 and been bound by its principles.  Article 16 of CEDAW states that

State parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations and in particular shall ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women:

(a) The same right to enter into marriage;

(b) The same right freely to choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with their free and full consent…

In response to the 2015 Fourth Periodic Report by Kyrgyzstan, the CEDAW Committee expressed deep concern about the persistent abduction of women and girls for forced marriages despite the amendments to the Criminal Code criminalizing bride kidnapping. The Committee was alarmed by the high prevalence of marriages in Kyrgyzstan that result from bride kidnapping, especially in rural and remote areas. The Committee was also deeply concerned that bride kidnapping appears to be socially legitimized and surrounded by a culture of silence and impunity and that cases of bride kidnapping remain underreported being considered a private issue that should remain within the family. The concern of the committee was further aggravated as only one perpetrator of bride kidnapping was convicted in the period since 2008.

Kyrgyzstan is also a party to the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Age of Marriage and Registration of Marriages. Article 1 of the Convention[11] outlines that to enter into a marriage, there must be free and full consent of both the parties expressed by them personally. Such consent must be given in the presence of witnesses and a representative of authority who has the right to formalize the marriage.  The Convention also requires the state parties to issue legislation establishing a minimum age of marriage barring marriage of persons under that age.[12]

Following a 2018 inquiry into bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, the committee overseeing implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) found that the government’s actions amounted to grave and systematic rights violations. The committee cited failure ‘to effectively investigate, prosecute and punish cases of bride kidnapping and related sexual violence.’ It also said that a ‘culture of abduction, rape and forced marriage violates women’s rights in Kyrgyzstan,’ and called on Kyrgyzstan ‘to strengthen its legislation and law enforcement, in particular by preventing, investigating, punishing and providing reparation for all crimes of abduction and related sexual violence.’

This alongside the scenario described by Franco Galdini in 2014 clearly speaks as to how far the Kyrgyz Republic is faring in securing gender equality in respect of family relations.

Way Forward?

Impunity for domestic violence and bride kidnapping is a continuing concern. Kyrgyzstan’s government has taken steps to improve prevention, protection and response regarding violence against women and girls. Measures include criminalization of religious marriages of children in 2016. The Ministry of Health and Ministry of Internal Affairs have issued internal instructions for applying the law and the government has developed a gender equality strategy.

According to a 2016 national survey conducted by the United Nations Population Fund and UN Women, 81 percent of the Kyrgyz population oppose bride kidnapping.[13] In this regard, the CEDAW Committee positively noted that education on gender equality has been included in certain school curricula and training for teachers, as well as school competitions and theatre plays on bride kidnapping organized by local village committees on the elimination of domestic violence.[14]

Increase of funding and facilities for supporting the survivors could be a good step in the right direction. Limited access to legal aid prevents many victims of bride kidnapping from accessing justice. Under article 2(c) of the CEDAW, state parties must ensure that victims of bride kidnapping have recourse to affordable, accessible and timely remedies, with legal aid, if necessary free of charge. They must provide access to appropriate reparations.[15]

A network of 10 legal aid centers provides free legal aid and has reportedly assisted some 38,000 applicants since 2010. However, legal aid is normally available only to the accused. Although victims of crimes can apply for legal aid under Order No 5415, the Family Code and a new law on legal aid, in practice they receive legal assistance during court proceedings only from NGOs that receive little or no State funding and depend on donor support.[16] The Supreme Court also informed that courts are unable to order victim rehabilitation measures as there is no specific legislation or budget for assistance to bride kidnapping victims. Psychological counseling is provided to victims of gender-based violence essentially by NGOs.[17]

Kyrgyzstan has taken a number of measures to encourage victims of bride kidnapping to file criminal complaints. The Ministry of Internal Affairs has established a department for legal assistance that is mandated to provide support to victims and witnesses. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, of more than 5,000 protection orders issued in domestic violence cases in 2016, 28 related to bride kidnapping victims.[18] This is quite unimpressive as the current estimates refer to as many as 12,000 cases per year.[19]

Another positive thing to consider is the activities of NGOs, such as National Federation of Female Communities of Kyrgyzstan (NFFCK), which are funded by the United Nations Trust Fund to End Violence against Women. They currently operate in three towns to raise awareness about the dangers of bride kidnapping and a woman’s right to choose when and if to marry. Supporting the charge by rights experts that bride kidnapping is a form of sexual violence, the Kyrgyz government acknowledged in its National Strategy to Achieve Gender Equality by 2020 that the practice is one example of the link between gender inequality and violence against women.

Initiatives such as Swallows: Spring in Bishkek, a gaming app developed by Open Line Foundation and a team of activists to convince those who see bride kidnapping as a Kyrgyz tradition to see it as a crime instead, might also help shape perception away from seeming social legitimization of bride kidnapping.

‘I see bride kidnapping as a woman’s issue and a world issue. It is an abuse of civil and human rights that violates international Law and many local laws, because it deprives young women of the freedom that they are entitled to.’                                                                                                                                – Russel Kleinbach.


[1] R Kleinbach, ‘Frequency of non-consensual bride kidnapping in the Kyrgyz Republic’ (2003) 8(1) International Journal of Central Asian Studies [108]–[128].

[2] Kleinbach, R. and Salimjanova, L. ‘Kyz Ala Kachuu and Adat: Non-Consensual Bride Kidnapping and Tradition in Kyrgyzstan’ (2007) Central Asian Review 26(2) [217]-[233].

[3] ibid.

[4] Kleinbach n (2).

[5] The Criminal Code of Kyrgyz Republic 1997, arts 154(2), 155(2); Kleinbach n (2).

[6] Human Rights Watch n (5).

[7] The Family Code 2003, art 14.

[8] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Report of the inquiry concerning the Kyrgyz Republic under article 8 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women CEDAW/C/OP.8/KGZ/1 (18 September 2018) [35].

[9] ibid, [39].

[10] Russell Kleinbach and Gazbubu Babaiarova ‘Reducing Non-Consensual Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan’ Eurasian Journal of Social Science 2003 1(1) [50]-[60].

[11] Convention on Consent to Marriage, Age of Marriage and Registration of Marriage 1962, UNTC Vol 521, p 231.

[12] Convention on Consent to Marriage, Age of Marriage and Registration of Marriage 1962, art 2.

[13] UN Women/UNFPA, Gender in Society Perception Study, National Research Result, 2016, p 112.

[14] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (n 9), [20].

[15] GR 28, [34]; Joint GR31/GC18, [55 (q)].

[16] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (n 9), [48].

[17] ibid, [52].

[18] ibid, [50] – [51].

[19] Asian Development Bank, Kyrgyz Republic: 16-Day Campaign to End Gender-Based Violence (2013); UN Women, News and events, ‘Stopping bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan’ (9 August 2016).[/fusion_text]

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