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Central Asia’s Shadow Pandemic: Violence Against Women

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Central Asia’s Shadow Pandemic: Violence Against Women

Restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19 inadvertently sparked a rise in violence against women and girls in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Central Asia’s Shadow Pandemic: Violence Against Women
Credit: Tatyana Zelenskaya

COVID-19-related restrictions and stay-at-home orders had an impact on domestic violence across the globe. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were no exception. While prior to the pandemic, both countries had relevant regulatory and institutional infrastructures in place, they largely failed to address the rocketing cases of violence against women. With the introduction of emergency rules, even the few operating crisis centers and shelters had to suspend the admission of victims and switch to providing assistance by phone or online. State response measures were slow and imprudent while civil society efforts remained limited due to a lack of available resources, staff, and legislative barriers.

Almost instantly after the onset of the health crisis an avalanche of reports revealed yet another pandemic – violence against women and girls. Between January and March 2020 alone, 2,319 cases of domestic violence were registered by law enforcement agencies in Kyrgyzstan – a 65 percent rise when compared to the same period of 2019. The majority of victims (95 percent) were women. Later, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) reported a total of 8,577 domestic violence cases registered in 2020. More than 9,600 people approached crisis centers, aksakal courts and other specialized institutions over family violence during the same period. Of 14,774 cases of violence against women officially registered in Uzbekistan in 2020, 89 percent took place at homes, making domestic violence the most common type of violence against women in the country. Some 10,785 women (72 percent) sought protection from their husbands, and 617 from their mothers-in-law. 

However, statistics provide only a partial picture of how widespread gender-based violence is. Many women do not report because of traditional values prioritizing the keeping of families together and showing “sabr” (patience), economic dependency on their husbands, and public pressure, among other reasons. A 2021 survey of women in Uzbekistan shows that 42 percent tolerate abuse due to the fear of not being able to feed their children alone, while 38 percent are afraid of public stigma if they were to speak out about the violence. 

Women in Kyrgyzstan have lower employment rates than men, receive lower wages across all sectors of the economy, and are more dependent on social assistance and services from the state. In Uzbekistan, only 34 percent of women in urban and 28 percent in rural areas have full-time jobs. So, in many cases when suffering from violence, women simply have nowhere to go and no means to survive – they are financially vulnerable and dependent on their husbands and/or other relatives. This can also explain, at least partially, the reluctance of families to accept women back.

The blame and responsibility for violence is often placed on victims by their abusers, family members, health professionals, police, and judges. Violence is viewed as an acceptable and often legitimized form of treatment and punishment of women – not only by perpetrators, but wider communities, women included. For instance, the results of the 2014 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey in the Kyrgyz Republic showed that 32.8 percent of female respondents aged 15-49 justified a husband’s violence in cases when a wife would not take care of children (23.6 percent), demonstrated her autonomy by either going out without telling her husband (17.8 percent) or arguing with him (15.7 percent), refused to have sex (6.6 percent), or burned food (6.2 percent). Similarly, in a recent survey in Uzbekistan, 28 percent percent of the respondents said violence against girls under the age of 18 was the girl’s fault, while another 24 percent reasoned it was the girl’s physical weakness. 

Amplified socioeconomic issues, including lost jobs and uncertainty, lack of interaction with relatives and friends, fast-spreading anxiety, and the fact that many victims found themselves locked in with their abusers with no possibility to escape played major roles in the increase of domestic violence against women. Quarantine measures in other countries and specifically Russia pushed many migrants out of work and back home, where they could not find jobs even prior to the pandemic. By the end of May 2020 almost half a million labor migrants had to return to Uzbekistan. Anecdotal evidence from Kyrgyzstan also suggests that people who were away for a long time and had to return just to be shut in their houses and apartments took their frustration over lost jobs and quarantine measures out on their family members.

As violence against women increased, so did cases of suicide among women. In Uzbekistan 900 women killed themselves in 2020, an increase from the annual average of 600 in previous years. The Ministry for Support of Family and Mahalla reported that most suicides happened due to conflicts women had with their husbands and/or mothers-in-law. In Kyrgyzstan, domestic violence also took a toll on children. In the first 10 days of lockdown seven teenagers aged 12 to 16 died by suicide. Social media was flooded with videos of parents shouting and beating children because of household chores and homework. Authorities responded by providing online psychological support for children and parents. 

Illustration credit: Tatyana Zelenskaya

In Kyrgyzstan, access to the few services available to victims of domestic violence was further complicated by the unfolding health crisis in the country. Women on the frontline of responses to both COVID-19 and violence against women and girls, including medical personnel, NGO and crisis center employees, volunteers, and activists, suffered from exhaustion and burnout. Activists and gender experts alike complained that in many instances throughout the pandemic, state agencies and specifically police were unresponsive to the growing number of violence cases. Victims faced difficulties reaching out to the police and filing complaints. 

In response to a rise in domestic violence cases, a member of the Jogorku Kenesh, Gulshat Asylbaeva suggested issuing a decree allowing women exposed to domestic violence to leave their homes during the lockdown in case of danger. Her concern and suggestions were met with silence, and she had to push to get confirmation from an MIA representative that such a norm was possible. It also took the state almost a month to react and update the Code on Criminal Procedure to include a provision under which law enforcement could detain domestic abusers for up to 48 hours. Such reluctance to protect women is even more remarkable when analyzed against the fact that by May 2020 Kyrgyz authorities had introduced over 160 normative legal acts to provide a framework for the COVID-19 response measures. The government was slow to react both to the considerable shortage of safe spaces for women or hospital beds in the country. While the construction of hospitals started after the peak in July 2020, the first state crisis center was opened only in February 2021.

Although some practitioners acknowledged well-coordinated joint efforts of the state, NGOs, and international organizations in response to the increased violence against women, others were not convinced. Other than some situational decision-making, critics noted, much of the state’s action was taken under pressure from NGOs and international organizations.

Such resentment might as well be valid since in the preceding years and throughout the pandemic the state has sent mixed signals to civil society and specifically to those working on gender-related issues. The attacks on the first Feminnale of Contemporary Art exhibition hosted in 2019 by Kyrgyzstan’s National Art Museum and on activists on International Women’s Day in 2020, as well as discriminatory laws and amendments used by the government to pressure journalists, civil society organizations, and activists are illustrative of the state’s reluctance to act in line with national legislation and international standards and even complicity in gender-based violence. 

While a substantial portion of international assistance centered around food security and medical and vaccine supplies, there were some targeted interventions addressing the shadow pandemic of violence against women. For instance, the joint EU-U.N. Spotlight Initiative allocated funds to ensure temporary safe spaces for women in line with COVID-19 prevention and protection measures, as well as to create and support mobile emergency gender-based violence groups and hotlines.

Non-state actors also proved to be flexible and adjusted either their budgets or services to the new fast-evolving reality. The scale of both the health and governance crisis left no choice for different organizations and active citizenry but to mobilize, taking “some key public functions upon themselves.” Financial support was attracted through crowdfunding from citizens, entrepreneurs, business associations, and diaspora residing outside Kyrgyzstan. Various social media platforms and messengers were effectively used to coordinate the efforts and raise awareness.

When analyzing the COVID-19 or gender-based violence response measures in Kyrgyzstan, we come to an implicit division of competencies and labor, where the state provides the necessary infrastructure and enables collective action; international organizations come with budgets, strategy, and broader expertise; and civil society organizations, activists, and volunteers bring in local knowledge and take the burden of action. Such an arrangement, however functional, can be especially fragile in authoritarian countries like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Therefore, to ensure assistance and protection provisions to victims, international organizations and local civil society alike have been forced to navigate their operations carefully in an increasingly hostile environment. 

In Uzbekistan, a lack of accommodation for women who faced violence was a key issue. Although 197 rehabilitation and adaptation centers were launched under the Women’s Committee, many of them were closed during the pandemic. In 2021, those centers were suspended due to insufficient funding and only 29 centers for rehabilitation and adaptation of women were established under the Ministry for the Support of Mahalla and Family. The only two non-governmental shelters for women in Uzbekistan – “Rahmdillik (Compassion)” in Samarkand and “Oydin Nur (Moonlight)” in Bukhara – were not able to accept new victims due to the lockdown measures as they did not have facilities to provide a two-week mandatory self-isolation for newcomers. 

The mechanisms of protection orders, introduced in Uzbekistan in 2020, were flawed. Victims of violence received only 30 days of protection from their abusers. The rehabilitation centers could shelter the victims for up to two months only; afterward women had to return to their abusers, where often violence took even more brutal forms as the women had made public a “family matter.” Protection orders also did not include provisions for charging the perpetrator with administrative or criminal punishment or carrying out correctional programs with them immediately. In 2020, only 2.1 percent of perpetrators faced administrative or criminal liability for registered violence. 

Taking legal actions against abusers in both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan remains challenging. Traditional family values are systematically prioritized. Many women also do not proceed with legal actions against their aggressors simply because it is costly. Victims of gender-based violence are not entitled to free legal assistance in either country. Lawyers, while they might provide free legal counsel, rarely take pro bono cases.

Although violence against women is not a new issue, the COVID-19 crisis exacerbated existing patterns of gender-based violence. Building on pre-pandemic approaches, governments in both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan tried to manage the outbreak of violence against women by adapting response measures on the go. However, systems that functioned poorly during normal times had little chance of working amid a full-fledged public health crisis. The state, including law enforcement and justice systems, continues to view and treat gender-based violence largely as a cultural, traditional, and private matter, which leads to poor programing as well as inadequate administrative and criminal sanctions. The legislative chaos, agency reshuffles, and lack of continuity hinders progress in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan alike.

Despite these limitations, the pandemic attracted increased attention to the issue of violence against women and girls and created momentum for collective action by governments, international organizations, and civil society. While COVID-19 is receding, gender-based violence is not. There is an opportunity to translate the recent experience of emergency response into enhanced legal framework and implementation.

This article is based on a report, titled “COVID-19 and the Gender-based Violence Pandemic in Central Asia: Assessing response measures of the state, civil society, and international actors in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan” which was produced in the framework of the Institut für Europäische Politik (IEP) Eurasia Lab & Fellowship Programme, kindly funded by the Open Society Foundations (OSF).