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Putting A Stop To Kyrgyz Bride Kidnapping

A veiled Kyrgyz bride sits for a photograph. Up to three-quarters of contemporary Kyrgyz brides are betrothed through "bride kidnapping" rituals. Now the Kyrgyz parliament is considering legislation that may chip away at the practice.
With marriage on his mind, a man in his twenties chooses a young woman and arranges her kidnapping. He then seizes the woman in the streets, and takes her to his home, where she is pressured to consent to the marriage by the man’s family.
This practice, known as "bride kidnapping," is endemic to Central Asia and the Caucasus. Now, after in-depth reporting by RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, Radio Azattyk, new legislation on the practice is working its way through the Kyrgyz parliament.

Radio Azattyk Director Venera Djumataeva explains that her station stirred public discourse through its round-table discussions and stories of kidnapped brides.

“As a result of our discussions, and reports, the Kyrgyz Parliament’s committee on health care, social policy, labour and migration initiated a draft bill penalizing imams for conducting the Nikah ceremony without any official marriage registration,” Djumataeva says.

Bride kidnapping is usually followed by an informal blessing of the marriage by a religious official. However, there is often no official registration of the marriage, meaning that many kidnapped Kyrgyz wives have no legal rights and are powerless in matters such as domestic abuse and child support.

Radio Azattyk’s impact was acknowledged by the Kyrgyz ombudsman, Tursunbek Akun, who quoted Azattyk’s reports following a public discussion in Bishkek.

The Tradition Myth

Though bride kidnapping is now portrayed as a long tradition, critics say that there is nothing traditional about kidnapping a young woman as a way of forcing her into marriage. In the past, bride kidnapping was a ploy used by couples who wished to elope, providing a convenient excuse for brides whose parents objected to the marriage.

Today, the tradition has acquired less romantic overtones. In many cases, the bride does not give her consent to the marriage, Djumataeva says.

There are also tragic cases. Radio Azattyk reported on two twenty-year-old women who committed suicide in the past two years after they were forced to marry their captors.

Bride kidnapping is a common practice in Kyrgyzstan, with anywhere from 68% to 75% of marriages taking place as a result of this practice according to the Kyz Korgon Institute, a nongovernmental organization that aims to eliminate bride-kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan.

Every year, Radio Azattyk receives a higher number of calls concerning bride kidnappings during the month of June. Djumataeva says the number of bride kidnappings increases during this time period as June marks the end of the school year, meaning 18-year-old girls who have just graduated from high school suddenly become easy targets for bride kidnappings.

Though bride kidnapping is officially a criminal offence in Kyrgyzstan and the criminal code provides for a maximum three-year prison term for the practice, most cases never make it to the courtroom and those few offenders who are tried usually get away with paying a small fine. The bill currently under consideration in the parliament, if passed, would be a small but significant step in Kyrgyzstan’s battle to contain the problem.

(UPDATE: On January 26, the bride kidnapping bill lost support in the parliament due to a provision that could prevent the common yet illegal practice of polygamy.)

-- Deana Kjuka