In the last few months, several horrific cases of violence against women broke onto headlines in Central Asia. In September, it was Asel Nogoibaeva, tortured by her ex-husband for hours in front of her 10-year-old son in Bishkek. Nogoibaeva survived the attack, but her ex-husband — who was on probation from a rape charge at the time — cut off her nose and ears. Then in early November Saltanat Nukenova died in a restaurant owned by her husband, former government minister Kuandyk Bishimbayev, allegedly beaten to death after an argument.
Outrage poured out onto social media, but also exasperation.
Women in Central Asia “feel unsafe everywhere: in the streets and on public transport, at universities and in their workplaces; they feel unsafe around their husbands and ex-husbands and they have been repeatedly shown by their governments that their grievances and fears do not matter enough to prompt action,” Svetlana Dzardanova, a human rights and corruption researcher at Freedom for Eurasia and a member of the Every Woman Coalition, told The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz.
In the following interview, Dzardanova discusses how little we actually know about the scale of the gender-based violence problem in Central Asia, the failures of regional governments to take action, and the role of “traditional values” discourse in derailing efforts to improve women’s lives.
“Instead of addressing the problem, [regional governments] focus on those who speak out about it,” Dzardanova said.
In recent months, there have been several horrific incidents of violence against women in Central Asia that have become high-profile stories. But these are just the incidents that break through into the news. What do we know about the scale of violence against women in Central Asia?
That’s exactly the issue — we don’t know much, to be frank. The challenge lies in the scarcity of comprehensive data. It is scattered, inadequately collected, and often inaccessible, making it difficult to see and follow ongoing trends. Furthermore, violence against women takes various forms, some of which remain difficult to document and monitor, let alone prosecute.
Many of the most disturbing incidents of violence against women in Central Asia happen in their homes – places where they should have been the safest – and at the hands of those they know, specifically intimate partners. So let’s try making sense of figures in this specific crime relevant to the whole region.
Renat Zulkhairov, deputy chairman of the Committee of Administrative Police of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan, reported in the beginning of 2023 a staggering 100,000 annual domestic violence complaints, tripling over the past five years. The Committee on Women and Family Affairs under the Government of Tajikistan received 1,075 gender-base violence-related complaints in the first half of 2023 alone. U.N. reports indicate that one-third of women in Tajikistan fall victim to domestic violence. Uzbekistan faced a significant challenge as well, with 21,871 protection orders issued to women in the first seven months of the year, 84.7 percent of which were related to incidents within families. The Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic registered 10,416 cases of domestic violence over 10 months of 2023, a 20 percent increase when compared to the same period last year.
Kyrgyzstan has been repeatedly rated the most dangerous country in Central Asia for women by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. While such an unflattering ranking can be attributed to data collection methodology, availability of data, and openness vis-a-vis other Central Asian states, this of course should not serve to downplay the scale of violence we observe in Kyrgyzstan.
What official statistics do not show us, and the assessments are usually based on official data, is how many cases go unaccounted for and why.
Two recent cases stand out for their brutality: that of Asel Nogoibaeva who was assaulted by her ex-husband in Bishkek in September and the killing of Saltanat Nukenova in Astana by her husband, a former government minister. The two cases also share the grim detail that both men had previously had run-ins with the law — one a probationary sentence for rape and several broken restraining orders and the other an extremely early release from a 10-year corruption conviction. What do these cases illustrate about the justice systems in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan?
As people in the field often say — the system is not broken, it functions exactly as designed. The justice systems in these two countries have been failing victims over and over again. However, taking a closer look will allow us to see some country specifics.
Kyrgyzstan has both a solid legal framework and institutional infrastructure in place to fight gender-based violence (GBV) and specifically domestic violence. The country has ratified a number of relevant international conventions, and its 2017 Law on Prevention and Protection Against Family Violence requires police to register and respond to every domestic violence case reported either by the victim or any other person. But what’s more important is that it establishes a comprehensive institutional architecture, comprising 17 bodies dedicated to preventing and addressing family violence. It also includes provisions to hold law enforcement officials accountable for failures in implementing the law.
But having good laws is not enough and even these require further improvements to account for existing gaps allowing the perpetrators to avoid punishment. One of such legal loophole is the conciliation of parties in GBV cases, which is not uncommon due to existing pressure on victims by perpetrators, family members, and wider communities.
On the other hand, Kazakhstan took a drastic step in 2017 by decriminalizing domestic violence, leaving victims without adequate protection and sending a clear message to both women at risk and abusers. Looking at the recent cases, the situation appears dire. Although President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev promised to strengthen punishment for domestic and sexual violence during the first year of his presidency, these promises have yet to materialize. Activists in Kazakhstan have called for urgent action and meaningful steps to amend and implement laws addressing the avalanche of GBV cases in the country.
An unfortunate similarity lies in how these systems approach the issue. Social stigma, fear of reprisal, lack of awareness, and insufficient support systems make it difficult for women to file complaints and pursue justice. Many complaints never reach a court and those that do have high chances of ending in administrative or no punishment at all. The atmosphere of impunity contributes to perpetrators’ aggravated behavior. This is exactly what happened in the case of Asel Nogoibaeva, assaulted by her ex-husband, an appalling crime that could have been entirely prevented had the system duly processed his multiple previous violent incidents.
Why do you think these two stories made such a large impact in both social and traditional media? What gets missed when we focus so much on these high-profile cases?
Asel Nogoibaeva will have to deal with the consequences of the assault for years to come both in terms of health and psychological well-being. What Saltanat Nukenova endured in her final hours and what her family goes through now is beyond our comprehension. So yes, both cases are marked by their brutality.
But that would only partly explain such public outcry and extensive coverage in both social and traditional media. Perpetrators’ affiliation can be among the reasons for this: one ex-minister and one ex-law enforcement, both triggering for Kazakh and Kyrgyz societies. Law enforcement officers have been implicated in numerous cases of GBV both in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan over the years. Government officials and representatives of local elites also enjoy privileges and can avoid punishment using their connections or other recourses.
However, what should have triggered such a reaction the most is that both cases manifest persistent justice system failures to address preventable violence against women. Women feel unsafe everywhere: in the streets and on public transport, at universities and in their workplaces; they feel unsafe around their husbands and ex-husbands and they have been repeatedly shown by their governments that their grievances and fears do not matter enough to prompt action. The systems are so corrupt, rigid, and unresponsive that many GBV victims resort to what they see as their only chance for justice — attracting media attention. The problem with this approach is that not all victims have the option to pursue publicity for a variety of reasons.
Cynically, one can say that none of this is new. We can look back to other cases that drew lots of attention, such as the murder of Burulai Turdaaly Kyzy in 2018 in Kyrgyzstan inside a Bishkek police station, and note how little progress has been made. What do you think needs to happen for women to be safe in Central Asia?
If I were to characterize the current state of affairs, I would use the negative growth analogy. Aside from the truly groundbreaking legislation adopted in Uzbekistan that criminalized domestic violence, which was only possible because of the tireless efforts of local activists, we have not seen much of progress across the region lately. What we observe is not even a stalemate; it is a considerable slide back. Activists alone cannot deal with the scale of violence we are facing even if supported by international donor organizations. Governments must adhere to their national and international commitments instead of trying to silence civil society.
Gender activists and journalists are persecuted by the state for drawing attention to the problem, calling out the authorities responsible, and demanding meaningful action to protect women. Officials in Kyrgyzstan, for example, are more concerned about the coverage of GBV cases than the cases themselves and mostly worry about the effect on the country’s international image and potential loss of tourist interest.
In Kazakhstan, authorities try to control the agenda and dominate public discourse by allowing Zhana Adamdar, a pro-presidential group, to hold a rally against gender-based violence while denying the same opportunity to Feminita and targeting the well-known nonprofit organization NeMolchi.kz (Don’t Be Silent) for not remaining silent.
It seems as though these governments learned the wrong lessons. Instead of addressing the problem, they focus on those who speak out about it. For women to be safe in Central Asia, states in the region not only need to have laws and institutional infrastructures in place but also need to realize that development is not possible when half of their population is not protected. The three key players — government, civil society, and the international community — need to combine their efforts for us to witness positive change in the situation.
A political trend in the region is embracing “tradition” and “traditional values” as a bulwark against perceived “foreign” social influences. How does this interact with efforts to improve safety for women and punish perpetrators of violence against women and children?
The two poorly align. Such a trend can hamper progress in addressing violence against women for several reasons. First, reporting the crime may go against the norms of a traditional upbringing, which expects women to be quiet, obedient, and tolerant of violence. This is already a challenge in Central Asian societies, as exemplified by the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) results in the Kyrgyz Republic, revealing that a third of female respondents aged 15-49 would justify their husband’s violence in some cases.
Second, the narrative of protecting tradition can be weaponized to silence activists and organizations advocating for women’s rights. Their status is already shaky and the space for operating is shrinking. Civil society and individual activists are tolerated by governments when providing the services that they themselves fail to provide — an example of which we observed during the COVID-19 pandemic-related rise in GBV. But the tolerance only lasts exactly up until civil society starts demanding accountability and action from the government.
Activists and organizations challenging the status quo face accusations of undermining cultural values and traditions, and can become subject to harassment and persecution. Feminist groups in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have been struggling in recent years to obtain permission to organize annual International Women’s Day demonstrations on March 8. In 2021, in Kyrgyzstan the annual demonstration was not only attacked by masked men, but later victims of the attack and not the attackers were detained. In May the same year in Kazakhstan co-leaders of the feminist group Feminita were harassed by unidentified men, again resulting in the detention of the victims of the attack, as later put by the police “for their own safety.”
The promotion of gender equality and the women’s rights agenda is evidently not safe. Furthermore, governments have taken steps to tighten control over nonprofit organizations and independent media, crucial actors in reporting GBV cases or providing services to victims. The amendments proposed and signed by Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov in 2021 to the Law on Non-Commercial Organizations and the Law on State Registration of Legal Entities clearly demonstrate that. According to the one of the bill’s sponsors, Deputy Baktybek Raiymkulov, the motives behind it lie in protecting the “Kyrgyz statehood from interference from other countries, preserve the traditions and culture of the people.”
These attempts were taken further with the promotion of a Russian-style foreign agents law in 2023 that, if passed, would further overregulate and restrict nongovernmental organizations receiving funding from abroad. This will negatively affect the sector and specifically organizations dealing with gender-based violence. As many crisis centers and women’s NGOs rely on international donors, this move poses significant challenges to improving the safety of women.