Bride kidnapping and forced marriages in Kyrgyzstan

Nargiza Bostoeva

16935638_1289176671165898_1959631936_o (1)Abstract

Kidnapping a person is a crime, no matter where you are it is illegal under international law and is understood the same way almost in every country. It is a crime, which violates core rights of a person. Legally, slavery does not exist and is prohibited under international law, but it is well known that “modern” slavery is still existing and can take many different forms, some of which are also mentioned in legal documents, but several are not. Here, I will elaborate on one world-known form of slavery – forced marriage in case of bride kidnapping, a weird and wild tradition for Western and European civilizations, which still exists in some countries and is even developing. I will focus on the example of Kyrgyzstan and try to reveal this crime’s features and identify the core rights that are violated by this practice and breaches of state obligations and make recommendations.

The tradition and its features

Bride kidnapping is an ancient tradition in Kyrgyzstan. People say that this tradition was born with a good faith, when young groom had no money or property to pay the bride’s family for her. Then, in rare cases, he could kidnap her with her consent to be together despite the differences in their financial status.

Unfortunately, nowadays, the good meaning of this tradition is totally lost. Guys, mostly in a rural places, are kidnapping girls who they like, girls who rejected them or even girls whom they never met, but saw once or heard that she might be a good wife. Kidnapping is usually happening, when the potential bride does not even suspect anything, e.g. a girl is walking on the street, then the groom with his friends rides up and forces her to sit in a car. The kidnapping often involves rape.

After that, they bring her to groom’s home, where his mother and all older women are already waiting for the girl to cover her with shawl. They do it by force and during that process all of these women stay around and say that she is now his wife, this is her destiny and that she will be happy with him. Wearing the shawl on a head and sitting on a floor of a house means that the girl has agreed to stay. In reality, it mostly happens just because the girl is too tired to stay and take off the shawl.

Of course, it is not understandable for the women from European society how a girl can agree like that at all, but it can be explained with the fact that in countries like Kyrgyzstan (as in all countries of Central Asia) there is a strong tradition of the respect for elders. It is visible in all spheres of life, from giving a place in a public transport to governmental bodies, e.g. the first session of Zhogorku Kenesh, the parliament is opened by the eldest deputy, and there is a special court of elders.

So, when five elderly women around you are non-stop talking that you will be happy and it is good for you, it makes a very strong psychological effect on them. Thus, they strongly feel that they cannot use force against elders.  The second reason, why girls stay, is that to return home after such kidnapping is understood as a shame by the society, and some parents do not want their daughters to return. If nobody comes after girl to take her back and she has to spend a night in a groom’s house, it is even more shame, because it is then taken as if she would have spent a night with a groom. The latter is also condemned from the religion side (Islam), so the girl is afraid that after that nobody will take her as a wife anymore.


There is no official statistics, which can show the whole scale of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan. Mostly, it is because women do not want to publish their cases, shame and fear. According to the NGO’s data, between 2004 and 2013 up to half of all marriages in Kyrgyzstan resulted from bride kidnapping and one-third are non-consensual. UN Women using figures from the NGO Women Support Centre has identified at least 11,800 cases of forced abduction of women and girls every year in Kyrgyzstan, with more than 2,000 of them having reported being raped (Kyrgyzstan’s total population is just above 6 million)[i]. Also, in many cases the kidnapped are under 18.

Legal framework

Kyrgyzstan is a United Nations member state, has ratified many international treaties, like Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Convention on the Rights of the Child[ii].

The Universal Declaration of Human rights

Bride kidnapping violates several articles in UDHR. First, art. 3, liberty and security of person are most obviously violated by kidnapping. Then, as mentioned before, forced marriage is a modern form of slavery, which is prohibited by art. 4 of the UDHR. Bride kidnapping is the forced capture of a woman against her will, she is removed from her environment and subjected to psychological and physical violence or threat of violence, which might even come to the loss of life. So, it might be said that in some cases the woman is subjected to torture and/or cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment (art. 5). She often suffers rape. Article 12 is regulating the right to privacy, family, home or correspondence which are obviously violated as well. Bride kidnapping often leads to forced marriage, which violates art. 16 (2) about free and full consent in marriage.[iii]

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

ICCPR mostly reinforces the provisions of UDHR with more detailed description of state’s obligations in guaranteeing the rights and freedoms.

Regarding the commitments of ICCPR provisions, the UN Human Rights Committee in the concluding observations on the second periodic report on Kyrgyzstan 23 April 2014 has said the following: “Committee notes with regret continuing reports of acts of violence against women, including bride kidnapping, spousal rape and domestic violence. The Committee is concerned that violence against women remain underreported and that domestic violence is accepted by the society at large.”[iv] This conclusion of UN Human Rights Committee is objective. If we look at state’s actions in order to avoid this tradition, we can see how slow Kyrgyzstan has been implementing legal norms. Although the prohibition has been in the Criminal Code (art. 155), the punishment used to be up to three years in jail or a fine from equivalent to 200-400$ until 2013. For comparison, for a property theft the punishment is up to 11 years in jail.  There was no case registered at the time. Because of a small prison term the case was considered not in the heavy crimes category and could be closed, if the victim does not want to continue the process, and of course all of them were taking back their claims after all the press described above.

In 2013 the parliament changed articles 154 and 155 in the Criminal Code. The prison terms were extended for a bride kidnaping under the age of 17 from 5 to 10 years and bride kidnapping from 5 to 7 years[v].  These amendments transferred bride kidnapping into heavy crimes category, so now the case cannot be closed even if the victim does not have any claims.

However, it is not helping, because according to the NGO’s data there are around 15 000 cases of bride kidnapping every year but in 2013 there was only one case in which a person was convicted for this crime[vi]. It means for 15 000 kidnappings there is only one perpetrator case. This refers to a big problem in the system. Women do not want to go to the police because of the pressure from the family of the offender (and sometimes her own), the shame and fear. And the police will not initiate the case itself, even if they heard about it (and in rural places police usually knows).

So there are serious violations of international and internal norms by the state. It is failing to guarantee many essential human rights, like the liberty right of a person and protection from torture and other inhuman forms of treatment.

The Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (Kyrgyzstan ratified on 5 September 1997) identifies forced marriage among practices similar to slavery[vii]. Art. 1 (c and d) regulates forced marriage without consent and child marriage (under 18 age). The Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages (ratified by Kyrgyzstan on 10 February 1997) also establishes that there must be full and free consent of both parties in case of marriage. The  marriages concluded as a result of the kidnapping are not registered by law, but only be religious rules, which makes women unprotected under civil family law in case of a divorce.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in art. 16 obliges state parties to guarantee women the same rights as men to freely to choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only on their free and full consent. In general, many articles in CEDAW are violated by bride kidnapping. The report of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women 11 March 2015 points out “the persistent abduction of women and girls for forced marriages”.[viii] Similarly to the UDHR and ICCPR, the Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees such rights as the right to privacy, honour and reputation, right to liberty, inherent dignity. States Parties undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment[ix]. In its concluding observations on the combined third and fourth periodic reports of Kyrgyzstan 7 July 2014 the Committee on the Rights of the Child pointed out bride kidnapping as a harmful practice, expressing concern over “the continuing widespread practice of bride-kidnapping of underage girls and that cases often remain unreported by the victims owing to social stigma and pressure”[x].

Positive obligations of Kyrgyzstan

Looking through the international documents and reports of competent international bodies allows to see where Kyrgyzstan has positive developments and where it fails to commit its obligations.

The law amendments of 2013 which made the bride kidnapping a heavy crime under the Criminal Code. The fear of a prison term has made some effect on the society. However, Kyrgyzstan does unfortunately not fulfill its positive obligations to guarantee the rights and freedoms as described above, nor is the domestic legislation properly enforced.  The state has totally failed in its procedural obligation to investigate such cases (one criminal case from 2008 does not at all match the data from annual reports about kidnapping). Thus, there is no legal protection or financial support for a women in case of a divorce from a forced marriage. In a more general perspective, I would point out that the obligation to guarantee equal rights for men and women has failed, there is no doubt that women are not equal in house duties, are culturally treated as servants for groom’s family and its relatives, especially in rural areas.

Conclusion and recommendations

No doubt, that bride kidnapping is a serious violation of human rights, especially women and child rights. In Kyrgyztan, state officials support national traditions and the way women are treated in the society, also by practicing polygyny. Recently, there was a case in social media when a 17 years old girl was raped in her classmate’s house by him and three of his friends. The case was closed, when the classmate agreed to marry the victim. Nobody asks for the victim’s opinion. The society and public opinion largely blamed the girl for going into the house. Impunity and the societal opinion gives rise to such cases and practices. In order to reduce and avoid this harmful tradition, I recommend the state to:

– react on each case of bride kidnapping and promote the initiation of criminal proceedings by the police itself by punishing police representatives for inactivity;

– ensure effective investigation, prosecution and conviction of perpetrators, guarantee legal support for the victims;

– provide systematic trainings for law enforcement officers, judges and medical staff on the criminal nature of bride kidnapping and its negative effects on women and child rights;

– protect victims from the physical and psychological pressure from the perpetrator and family by establishing more crisis centres;

– make a strong campaign together with NGOs against bride kidnapping via radio, television, and posters, publish information about the real cases, especially when the perpetrators were punished;

– implement an education project in secondary and post-secondary schools about the negative implications of early marriage for the girl’s rights to health, education and development, targeting also traditional and religious leaders and parents.


[i] Website
[ii] State database of legal documents
[iii] United Nation Declaration on Human rights
[iv] Concluding observations on the second periodic report of Kyrgyzstan. Distr.: General 23 April 2014. CCPR/C/KGZ/CO/2.
[v] Criminal code of Kyrgyz Republic, art. 155,
[vii] Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery. Adopted by a Conference of Plenipotentiaries convened by Economic and Social Council resolution 608(XXI) of 30 April 1956 and done at Geneva on 7 September 1956 Entry into force: 30 April 1957, in accordance with article 13.
[viii] Report of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women 11 March 2015 year.
[ix] Convention on the Rights of the Child 20 November 1989
[x]  Concluding observations on the combined third and fourth periodic reports of Kyrgyzstan of the Committee on the Rights of the Child 7 July 2014


Edited by Mariann Rikka

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