Crossroads Asia

To Empower Women in Kyrgyzstan, Address Masculinity

Gender violence is a pervasive problem in Kyrgyzstan. A local NGO is trying to address it by working with men.

Colleen Wood
To Empower Women in Kyrgyzstan, Address Masculinity
Credit: Pixabay

The brutal murder of 20-year-old Burulai Turdaaly kyzy earlier this year brought international attention to the extent of violence against women in Kyrgyzstan. Gender violence constitutes a serious and pervasive problem in Kyrgyzstan, both in terms of the numbers of women whose lives are affected by abuse and the persistence of belief structures that justify it.

In Kyrgyzstan’s 2012 Demographic and Health Survey, one in four women and girls aged 15-49 who are or have ever been married reported having experienced domestic violence. The same survey found that 50 percent of men and 33 percent of women in Kyrgyzstan agree that a husband can hit his wife for certain reasons — including leaving the house without telling her spouse, not caring properly for the children, and even burning food.

International development organizations and local civil society alike are working to educate women about their rights and the resources available for victims of gender violence. Asylbek Eshiev, a professor at the International University of Kyrgyzstan in Jalalabad, expressed frustration with the gender imbalance in the audience at events aiming to raise awareness of domestic violence.

“There are so many seminars about women’s issues where only women participate,” he told The Diplomat. “We decided that in order to really fix the problem, it’s necessary for men to understand and take part.”

With the goal of reducing domestic violence, since 2015 Eshiev has organized trainings exclusively for young men through the NGO “Equal Rights and Opportunities,” which he founded in 2009. “Too often, men don’t express their thoughts because they are ashamed,” Eshiev said. “At the sessions, we talk about lots of issues with men, like bride kidnapping and how to build a good relationship with their wives.”

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A 2017 World Bank Group report “Gender Norms in Flux,” authored by Ryan Muldoon and Ursula Casabonne, identified that many gender norms in Kyrgyzstan have been thrown into flux as a result of “political and legal changes, increased access to the internet, negative economic conditions, and significant out-migration.” Eshiev, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the transformation of masculinity in Kyrgyzstan, agrees that there is currently a “crisis of masculinity” in his country.

Eshiev argues that there are several channels through which Kyrgyz men can respond to this crisis, not all of which involve violence. The goal of his current project “Men as Agents of Change” is to open a dialogue among young men in Kyrgyzstan to discuss and react to the crisis of masculinity in a productive way.

In total, more than 600 men from Jalalabad and Osh regions in southern Kyrgyzstan have participated in Eshiev’s trainings.

Next year, Eshiev plans to shift gears and focus his efforts on aksakals, Kyrgyz village elders. Aksakal courts were formally introduced into Kyrgyzstan’s legal system in the early years of independence; they are meant to decide minor disputes — such as land conflicts, domestic violence, or theft of animals — in accordance with salt, Kyrgyz customary law. “Aksakals enjoy  very strong authority in the villages,” Eshiev told The Diplomat.

He is currently collaborating with Bishkek-based artist Tatyana Zelenskaya to produce an animated video that will explore the meaning of masculinity.

“What behavior is required of ‘big men’? Kidnapping girls and beating their wives? How about instead, it means intervening when he sees his neighbor hitting his wife? Or taking his daughter back from the man who tries to kidnap her and bringing the issue to the police?” Zelenskaya told Azattyk in an interview on October 8.

In addition to the video (which will be called “Atake,” Kyrgyz for “daddy”), Eshiev and Zelenskaya won a grant from the Institute for Youth Development to organize trainings geared specifically at aksakals. “We want to work not only with women, but also with men,” Zelenskaya said. “Maybe when people go to aksakals for advice on family issues, their advice and words can change men’s opinions.”

Seeking out the perspective of those who tolerate and perpetuate violence could run the risk of rationalizing or validating an abuser’s actions. But the potential consequences of failing to engage with men’s roles in bride kidnapping and domestic violence is the more pressing concern. Eshiev’s insistence on bringing men into dialogue about masculinity and gender violence is necessary for addressing Kyrgyzstan’s domestic violence problem head-on.