On April 11, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev signed long-awaited amendments to the country’s legislation on the protection of women and children from violence. Uzbekistan became the fifth country in Eastern Europe and Central Asia to criminalize domestic violence, noted Amnesty International.
Thousands of cases of violence against women and sexual abuse of minors go unreported because of uyat, shame culture. Although there are no official statistics available, around 40,000 women report cases of abuse to law-enforcement bodies annually, with 80 percent of them involving domestic violence.
“I think that domestic violence, and even sexual violence towards minors, is really widespread in Uzbekistan, but as in many countries, those are taboo topics and latent crimes,” Irina Matvienko, a feminist activist and a founder of nemolchi.uz, a project dedicated to fight against gender-based violence in Uzbekistan, told The Diplomat. “It is really shameful for women to report to the police. For example, now there is an investigation of an alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl by a man who works in the National Guard. She reported about it when she was 16 … he raped her, and threatened her, so she was afraid to tell about it. … I’m in contact with her mother, [and she says] that everything is okay with the alleged rapist and his family. They walk in mahalla [the neighborhood] proudly. But the family of this girl is blamed by their mahalla.
“In Uzbekistan, in cases of gender-based violence, everyone blames women.”
Nozima Davletova, chairwoman of the Board of Trustees of Uzbekistan’s Public Foundation for Support and Development of National Mass Media, noted in an interview with The Diplomat that for a long time domestic violence was just an invisible problem. “Making it more vocal and making it visible is also one of the solutions. There is [now] public discourse and discussions on social media,” said Davletova.
In particular, sexual abuse of minors has been at the center of public discussion in recent years as media began reporting about such incidents more often. In 2020, 153 people were found guilty of having sex with minors under 16; in 2022 the number jumped to 238. The age of consent in Uzbekistan is 16. However, loopholes in legislation have allowed many perpetrators to avoid real punishment. For example, recently, three girls at an orphanage in Khorezm, aged 15 to 17, were made to have sex with local public officials over a period of 10 months. The head of the orphanage who “forced them to have sex with different men for financial gain” was eventually sentenced to five years in prison, while the two public officials who had sex with the underage girls got away with a year and a half of restriction of freedom. Essentially, their only punishment is that they must not leave their homes between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Taking legal action against perpetrators of domestic abuse is also challenging – reportedly, only 7 percent of cases reach the court. Even when a case gets to court, perpetrators do not face heavy criminal charges. For example, the possibility of issuing protection orders against abuse and harassment was introduced in 2020, and thousands of women have filed for them, mostly against their husbands. But, in 2021, nemolchi.uz reported that less than a fifth of the aggressors had to go through correctional programs, while only 0.2 percent of aggressors against whom a protection order was issued were prosecuted.
“Before the criminalization of domestic violence, such crimes were addressed under several articles of the Criminal Code, in which responsible persons, that is, persons who commit these crimes, could be not only relatives, spouses or ex-spouses, or partners, but any strangers too,” explained Kamola Alieva, a lawyer, gender specialist, and an associate professor at Tashkent State University of Law. “In cases of domestic violence, their crimes were mainly dealt with under articles on bodily injuries of varying severity, slander, and insults as a form of psychological abuse. And it so happened that under these articles, usually, the punishment was not so harsh.”
For example, when a woman is subjected to deliberate serious bodily injury – a beating by her husband – a forensic examination might conclude that it was light or moderate bodily injury, but not heavy, and so the husband would not face criminal liabilities. For an injury to be classified as heavy, a woman would have to lose her ability to work for three weeks or more. Law enforcement officials used the same articles of the Criminal and Administrative Codes for both cases of domestic abuse and abuse by strangers. The new amendments change this.
In cases of sexual abuse of minors, lawyers would often use loopholes in the legislation, in particular arguing that the perpetrator did not know the girl’s age and everything was consensual. “The same was in the case of [the orphanage girls in] Khorezm. They classified the case [as consensual], but in reality, it was a rape [of underaged girls],” Alieva told The Diplomat.
Under the new legislation, it is the responsibility of an adult to know the age of the individual whom he or she wants to engage in a sex act with. Also, perpetrators, unlike before, cannot get out of prison on parole either – they will have to serve a full sentence.
The bill also increased the penalties for indecent conduct toward minors, the highest punishment for which was previously two years of imprisonment. “For example, one year ago, when a school psychologist [indecently] touched five student girls of age 9 and 11, the case became very resonant. But the judge could give him only two years [sentence], only because that was the highest punishment,” Matvienko said. The amendments now provide sentences for indecency toward minors from two to seven years of restricted freedom or imprisonment.
The amendments propose administrative and criminal liabilities for domestic violence depending on its type. “For three years in a row, if you look at statistics on issued protection orders [to women], psychological abuse is the most common, but there was no responsibility [liability] for this,” explained Alieva. “There was responsibility only for an insult or slander, but psychological abuse is not only these. And now [the amendments] include liability for psychological and economic abuse. First there is administrative liability, then comes criminal liability, if abuse is repeated.”
Administrative liabilities include either a fine or compulsory community service or correctional work. “Why is community service necessary? I think it’s a good decision,” Alieva told The Diplomat. “Because in Uzbekistan, [and] in Central Asia, people are afraid of uyat (shame), of ‘what will people say?!’ And it needs to be put to good use. There is such practice in neighboring countries that people who commit domestic violence do sweeping and other works publicly.”
Spousal rape is even less discussed than the abuse of minors, for it most often happens behind closed doors and is among the most taboo topics. Men learn about sex from pornography or they travel to Russia and other countries for labor migration and are exposed to more liberal sexual norms. When they marry young, virgin girls from traditional families, the non-traditional sexual practices those men asking for or forcing upon their wives are perceived as demeaning.
“Marital rape has always envisioned liability,” clarified Alieva. “Before, under article 119, if an unnatural satisfaction of sexual desire by using violence, intimidation, or taking advantage of the victim’s vulnerability was carried out with close relatives, it was considered aggravating circumstances. Now the article includes not only close relatives, but also ex-wife (ex-husband), a cohabitant (partner), which largely includes second wives, or a person with whom they have a common child. De jure, there is criminal liability, but de facto, [almost] no one files a complaint on spousal rape.”
Domestic violence perpetrators will not be mandatorily punished, however. The reconciliation clause under article 66.1 allows women to stop prosecution at any time, although law enforcement bodies are obligated to make sure that she is not doing so under pressure. “But in aggravating circumstances of deliberate domestic violence where a victim is heavily injured, loses eyesight or hearing, or pregnancy, or when a perpetrator acts based on religious convictions or in a group, etc., the reconciliation clause does not apply,” explained Alieva to The Diplomat.
Although civil rights and women’s rights activists have been pushing for the criminalization of domestic violence for years, progress on the bill that started last year was met with some resistance.
“In April, one year ago, the Senate created a working group to develop the project of the law,” said Matvienko. “I was not invited. Only in June, they invited me to [join] this group, because, as I know, UNICEF lobbied for my participation. [Regarding the resistance,] I think it’s a question of gender stereotypes. One senator told us, ‘But there are light-minded 15 year old girls who want sex with adults.’ Maybe it’s their personal experience and they think that minors want to have sex with them. We do not know.”
Resistance to the bill was also justified by calls to respect “traditional” family values. Criminalization of domestic violence might lead to more divorce, opponents argued.
Matvienko in particular noted that resistance to the amendments might have been due to financial reasons, too. In a case of divorce, women might become a burden for the government. In Uzbek families, girls from an early age are raised to be a good wife and mother. They are not taught about financial independence or encouraged to build a career.
“Working with victims of domestic violence, now we see a lot of them are not ready to take responsibility for their own life. So they usually wait [until] someone will come and save them from their husbands. [They say], ‘Oh, I will not report him [to the police]. But do something, save me.’ They write to us, ‘I want to leave my husband, but I don’t have a house. I don’t have work. How can I get a house from the government? Or money?’ They do not want to work, or to take vocational courses for women. We have a special program from the government and it works. And I think the government understands. In case of [many more] divorces, all of these women will come to the government and ask for a flat or money and I think our government doesn’t have such resources.”
There is dissatisfaction with the amendments among some citizens as well. For many in Uzbekistan, a woman’s place is at home, at the service of a husband and her in-laws. Giving women agency and voice is frowned upon. They often express their stand on social media platforms, criticizing everything about women – from their clothing to lifestyle and more.
“There are also the traditionalists. I cannot say that they are radicals, but they are pretty radical about women and women’s rights,” said Davletova. “There are some bloggers that actually disseminate ideas that are discriminative and violent towards women. I think this is pretty dangerous, and we have to take legal measures against them. This is a part of a hate speech against women and has to be taken seriously.”
Notably, Saida Mirziyoyeva, the president’s daughter and head of the Communications and Information Policy Branch of the Executive Office of the Presidential Administration, was vocal in support of the amendments, among some other female politicians and activists as well. “I think another achievement was that the women in power were with us and I would like, of course, in particular, to highlight Ms. [Saida] Mirziyoyeva’s role in it,” Davletova noted. “She also had tough negotiations. Her voice was very important, very powerful, especially in social media. Without her support, I don’t think that we could have achieved such results. But in general, it was a great cooperation between the civil society activists and the government. It is this cooperation and this solidarity that brought these results.”
Enacting the amendments into a law is a half-step only. Implementation of the law requires harder efforts, and so far, Tashkent has not been effective in fully implementing previous legal measures. Civil society activists often mention how, for example, protection orders have not been effective, shelters are not operating properly, or representatives of law enforcement and the judicial system often victim-blame women seeking help.
“I think that there will be a backlash,” continued Davletova. “And there is a risk that these laws are not going to be effective in every corner of Uzbekistan, but it also depends on how we communicate the importance of these laws to people – a series of projects of advocacy, of social media work, training of law enforcement bodies. What we are now going to do is to train each relevant ministry staff on gender sensitivity, because [so far] they are very tolerant to violence.”
Davletova also mentioned that an important task now is the work of the media to change social norms and display more gender sensitive media products ranging from movies to articles that depict women differently from stereotypes. But what is most important now, she says, is to create a system of response that is “pretty standard,” one in which both men and women know their rights and know what to expect from law enforcement and the legal system.
Less than a month after Mirziyoyev signed into law the new provisions criminalizing domestic violence, Matvienko fled Uzbekistan after receiving death threats. While she said in a social media post that she would return to the country, her flight underscores the dangers faced by women in Uzbekistan pressing for change.