About a year ago, Gulmira met a man at a café in Kazakhstan. He seemed nice enough, she recalls, asking for her phone number and in between offering sly smiles.
She complied, and a relationship soon blossomed. Gulmira, who is divorced and lives in a family-style dormitory with one of her daughters, would meet up with the man, who she says treated her and her daughter warmly, especially after she lost her job in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan.
“Unfortunately, our good relationship lasted only a month,” she says.
She went to a friend’s birthday party, and when it was over, the man was waiting for her. He appeared to be intoxicated, she says.
“When we came to the dormitory and I got out of the car, he started beating me,” she adds. “He totally has changed and he was absolutely different from when he was before. People could hardly stop him. That day I immediately called the police and ambulance and wrote a statement.”
The man apologized the next day, but the violence continued for months, leading into the spring of 2020. Then the pandemic hit, which experts have warned is exacerbating domestic violence across the world. From Canada to Zambia to Kazakhstan, survivors of domestic violence are finding it harder to get away from their violent partners.
In Gulmira’s case, her abuser went on trial in March for his actions. The prosecutor said Gulmira had two options: The man could be detained for 15 days or banned from approaching her for three months. She chose the latter.
After two months, the man found her.
“I don’t know how he found me,” Gulmira says. “I have changed my address and phone number. At that time, I was living in a dormitory, and he even found out which room I was in.”
The man wanted to enter her room, but Gulmira kicked him out.
“He got angry, threatened to kill me, and almost broke a door. The watchman shouted and left. My ex-boyfriend started shouting and throwing stones under the window. He injured my daughter.”
She decided to turn to social networks to seek help, something that experts have also discussed. The Women’s Funding Network, the world’s largest philanthropic network devoted to women and girls, created a hand signal that domestic violence survivors could use via online platforms to signal they needed help. Initial piloting of the new gesture saw positive results in Canada.
Diana Tansary, a human rights defender in Kazakhstan, is the director of the victim assistance fund Don’t Keep Silent KZ and author of the book “The Entrance.” As a child, she was abused, and as an adult, she has turned toward defending women’s rights.
“The number of women who are contacting us during quarantine has increased dramatically,” she says.
In the past, she says, 10 to 15 women would call the organization each day, but now that number has increased to 25. The organization mainly works with sexual violence survivors, but now, she adds, the organization is helping serve a growing number of cases of survivors of domestic violence.
“Unfortunately, women’s rights are not well protected in Kazakhstan,” she says, adding that the organization wrote a letter to the president of Kazakhstan seeking improvements to women’s rights protections but to no avail.
During quarantine, the organization’s hotline has received 42,000 calls over a four-month period, she says. But only 8,000 of those calls have led eventually to trials and just 4,000 have received justice.
In addition to weak laws protecting women, she says many have the wrong mentality.
“Although a woman who has been abused by her husband complains to police, her husband’s relatives come to her, urging her to reconcile with her husband or threatening and intimidating her,” she says, referring to a recent situation.
A woman, she said, was abused by her husband and had called in. Shorty after, the woman’s sister called the organization and disputed her report, and the family asked the woman to reconnect with her husband because of their children.
“Our society should understand that children cannot be happy in the family where their father beats their mother,” Tansary says.
According to Human Rights Watch, Kazakhstan has no statute against domestic violence, which — the organization says — remains widespread and underreported.
Since 2009, Kazakhstan has had a law “On prevention of Domestic Violence” that provides for access to shelters and social services, such as psychological, medical, and legal aid for survivors, says Viktoriya Kim, an assistant Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. The law also provides for some protective measures, such as short-term protection orders, which are intended to prohibit contact between a survivor and their abuser for up to 30 days. However, the 2009 Domestic Violence Law does not criminalize domestic violence as a standalone offense.
“The other issue is that that law enforcement and the judiciary do not adequately enforce the 2009 Domestic Violence Law,” Kim says.
Kim says there are other laws in Kazakhstan that authorities use to hold perpetrators accused of domestic violence accountable. Criminal and administrative sanctions, as defined in the Criminal and Administrative Codes respectively, can be imposed for domestic abuse. But the criminal code does not criminalize domestic violence, and the administrative code is weak. In December 2019, the minimum punishment for “battery” and “intentional infliction of light bodily harm” — which are the articles most commonly used against perpetrators of domestic violence — was reduced from a fine to a warning for the first time offense.
“Domestic abuse is a serious crime and should never be punishable with only a warning,” Kim adds. “There is a new draft law ‘On Combating Domestic Violence’ currently in the Parliament, but proposed amendments fall short of criminalizing domestic violence as a standalone offense.”
In March, a state of emergency was declared in the country and quarantine measures were introduced. Nongovernmental organizations, as well as government officials, have noted a rise in domestic violence cases throughout the country, Kim says. She cites Aida Balaeva, minister of information and social development, who noted that during the pandemic the number of domestic violence cases increased by 20-25 percent.
In June, law enforcement officials launched a nationwide campaign “No to domestic violence!” in response to the surge of incidents of family abuse in Kazakhstan, Kim says. The campaign was aimed at raising public awareness and preventing domestic violence and violence against women.
Meanwhile, Gulmira says she is still recovering from her physical and emotional injuries.
“I think that if all this was considered fairly by law enforcement agencies and the court, if the case was completed once and for all, if the victim was punished, thousands of empty complaints would not be received, hundreds of women’s lives would be better,” she says.
Assem Almukhanbetkyzy is a journalist and a Bolashak scholarship holder.
Kristi Eaton is a journalist and Tulsa Artist Fellow based in the United States.