Child Brides, Forced Marriages Among Gender Equality Topics

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Kyrgyz Ombudsman Dzhamilya Dzhamanbaeva met with USAID’s Senior Global Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, Jamille Bigio in Bishkek. According to the ombudsman’s office, the parties discussed important issues in the protection of freedoms and human rights. The key topics of conversation were reportedly the problem of early marriage among women in Kyrgyzstan, and the protection of children’s rights. The ombudsman’s office cited an example of a 15-year-old girl being married against her will to a much older man.

“There is an urgent need to support victims of early marriages, because they are exposed to domestic violence… For example, a 23-year-old mother of three approached the Ombudsman Institute complaining of domestic violence. As it transpired, she had been forcibly married at age 15 to a man three times her age,” Dzhamanbaeva said.

The ombudsman stated that her office receives many appeals from girls complaining about domestic violence, and its review has revealed facts about forced early marriages. According to the Institute, such egregious facts are not isolated in Kyrgyzstan, and there is a need for the government to take measures to prevent them.

In the past, human rights activists have repeatedly stated that the police are reluctant to consider cases of domestic violence, because the spouses very often reconcile, and the victim withdraws her statement. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has recognized that police systematically fail to prosecute domestic violence cases, “because of widespread misconceptions and gender stereotypes present at all levels of law enforcement and judicial systems.”

“The police often see no need to intervene in what they consider to be ‘private matters,’ and do not recognize domestic violence as acts requiring preventive measures or investigation,” noted a Kyrgyz Supreme Court report. As a result, law enforcement officials often try to dissuade victims from filing a formal complaint.

The situation is similar regarding the practice of bride kidnapping. However, under public pressure, in 2019 the Kyrgyz authorities toughened the punishment for kidnapping girls in order to marry them. According to the criminal code, this offense now carries a prison sentence of 5 to 10 years. Additionally, the fine for forcing girls under the age of 17 into marriage can be up to 200,000 som ($2,200).

The ombudsman also said a new bill is being drafted to strengthen the mandate of the ombudsman’s office and allow representatives to participate in closed-court sessions involving children. “Currently, the institute’s employees are not allowed to attend such sessions, [as per] the criminal code. In this regard, we have no opportunity to ensure the protection in court of the rights of children who have been abused. With the adoption of the new law, we will be able to monitor closed trials,” the ombudsman emphasized.

USAID’s representative, Bigio noted the importance of strengthening cooperation on the protection of children’s rights and the development of mechanisms to protect against early marriage, saying that USAID is ready to continue to cooperate with the government of Kyrgyzstan, authorized bodies and human rights defenders and to provide all of them with all necessary support. According to Bigio, her office also supports the efforts of the Kyrgyz ombudsman to become a bridge between civil society and the authorities.

Simpler than courtship and circumventing the bride price (dowry), Ala-Kachuu – ‘take and flee’ – is a ritual form of bride kidnapping prevalent throughout Central Asia, but particularly prevalent in Kyrgyzstan. Traditionally whisked away on horseback, or these days more often stuffed into the back of a car by the prospective groom, future in-laws then try to calm the girl and coax her into putting on the jooluk, the white wedding shawl of submission.

Whilst the waters are muddy as the appellation covers both abduction and elopement, in 2005 the New York Times estimated that over half of Kyrgyzstan’s married women were snatched from the street by their husbands, hence the adage, “every good marriage begins in tears.” In a victimization survey conducted in Kyrgyzstan in 2015, out of the surveyed married women, 14% disclosed experiencing kidnapping, with a notable revelation being that approximately two-thirds of these instances were consensual. In these cases, the women were familiar with the man, involved and had agreed to the abduction in advance.

The practice of bride kidnapping takes another twist in Turkmen culture. Meticulously planned, weddings involve a long-winded back and forth between families, each part of the process having an attached ritual. Even after the parents reach an accord, aunts and sisters-in-law must still visit the prospective groom’s family to establish good relations. When the nuptial day is finally set, the girl’s family traditionally sing one of many ceremonial songs.

We’ve seen our future son-in-law. He doesn’t look worse than our girl, ya-ya.
We’ve tasted their dish, ya-ya. It’s better than grapes, ya-ya.

Despite all the pre-arrangements, the suitor must still pursue and capture the bride, which often takes the form of a high-speed car chase.

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Times of Central Asia