In 2003, Kyrgyzstan enacted a groundbreaking domestic violence law. But as a Human Rights Watch report released today makes clear, there is a long road between a well-intentioned law and improvement in the lives and options for women abused by their partners, dismissed by the police and ignored by the government.
“Kyrgyzstan was a leader in the region in establishing its domestic violence law in 2003,” the report’s author, HRW researcher Hillary Margolis told The Diplomat. “Unfortunately, implementation and enforcement of the law has been severely lacking, and the government needs to increase its commitment to ensuring that women experiencing abuse in the home receive the protection, services, and access to justice they need and deserve.”
The report, based on more than 90 interviews, draws its title–“Call Me When He Tries to Kill You”– from comments made by one of the women interviewed by Margolis, called Asya in the report. In 2012, Asya called the police in Osh twice to try and report that her partner had severely beat her. The police were dismissive, to say the least:
They said, “Did he use a knife? Did he try to kill you?” I would say, “No,” and they would say, “Okay, you call me when he tries to kill you, because we have more important things to do.”
Kyrgyzstan has incorporated equal rights and protections for women into its constitution. And the HRW report notes that the 2012 National Strategy “recognizes links between gender inequality and violence against women, and notes high levels of domestic violence and early marriage, as well as the enduring practice of bride kidnapping.”
The 2003 law specifically addressing domestic violence was the product of an extended push by civil society to address the issue. The law is fairly clear in its definition of domestic violence: “any deliberate action of one member of a family against another, if that action infringes on the legal rights and freedoms of the family member, causes him/her physical or psychological suffering and moral loss or poses a threat for physical or personal development of a minor member of the family.” The legal frameworks exist which guarantee an individual’s right to medical, legal and shelter services, but also codifies the right of victims to file complaints and ask the government to instigate a criminal investigation.
In sum, it’s not a bad law–although HRW does point out areas in which it is lacking or ambiguous–but it’s not enacted as intended.
There are numerous obstacles that obstruct a woman’s path to protection and justice in Kyrgyzstan with regard to domestic violence. Paramount among them are a range of social pressures, such as the considerable pressure for women to “preserve family unity,” economic dependence on the abuser, as well serious issues of shame, stigma and victim-blaming.
Survivors, service providers, police and others told HRW that acceptance of domestic violence as a fact of life, in part, stemmed from a “Kyrgyz mentality” (also expressed as an “Uzbek mentality” among ethnic Uzbeks or “our mentality” referring to all of Kyrgyzstan) which “favors reconciliation of conflict and maintenance of the family unit, even in cases of domestic violence.”:
Asyl, a 30-year-old from Issyk-Kul province, told Human Rights Watch that she informed her mother-in-law about her husband’s abuse: “My mother-in-law said, ‘Kid, you shouldn’t tell me these things. When he comes home drunk, don’t tell him the next day what he said while he was drunk. You should just be smiley, give him tea. Everything will be okay.’” Asyl said she never told her own relatives about the violence “because my mother-in-law said I shouldn’t tell people what happened in my own [personal] life.”
There are also a number of systematic barriers, such as the simple fact that many Kyrgyz women are unaware of the options available to them. “Many women told me that they did not leave abusive situations because they felt they had ‘nowhere to go,’” Margolis told The Diplomat.
Those who do seek help–such as reporting the abuse to the police–are sometimes dismissed as Asya was or find that their cases are categorized as “minor hooliganism” rather than “family violence.” In 2013, fewer than half of domestic violence complaints registered in Kyrgyzstan went to court. Only 7 percent of those that did were referred to court as criminal cases, the majority of which (64 percent) resulted in small penalties for “minor hooliganism.”
According to victims interviewed by HRW, staff at medical centers sometimes call the police without a victim’s consent–something HRW is concerned prevents victims from seeking medical care, even when it is desperately needed. Lack of trust in the police is a common theme among the victims interviewed.
Because many women are economically dependent on their abusers, the dearth of shelters is especially troubling. Although the law provides for such shelters, HRW says they are not adequately supported by the government. Staff at only two of the nine facilities visited by the researchers reported receiving any government support.
The much-discussed “foreign agents” law that was put on hold for Kyrgyzstan’s October parliamentary elections is worrisome. Margolis told The Diplomat that because so many providers of shelter and other services for victims struggle to secure government funding, they turn to the international community. “The Foreign Agents law could be extremely detrimental to ensuring that such services are able to continue,” she said in an email to The Diplomat. “Without adequate funding for these services provided by NGOs and activists, and unless the government steps in to fill in the funding gap and provide services, women who suffer abuse will be left without support and at grave risk.”
The report closes with an extensive list of recommendations for the Kyrgyz government but also its international partners. These range from the broad, such as imploring the government to more firmly state its condemnation of domestic violence, to the specific, urging the new parliament to reject laws that would further deteriorate protections or stymie funding.
“Women in Kyrgyzstan should feel safe in their homes,” said Margolis, in a press release. “But they won’t unless the government steps up its efforts and makes protecting them a top priority.”