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Women as Wives: How Uzbekistan’s Justice System Fails to Serve Women

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Women as Wives: How Uzbekistan’s Justice System Fails to Serve Women

Uzbekistan’s judicial system perceives women as wives in domestic violence cases and does not shy away from punishing them for responding to abuse.

Women as Wives: How Uzbekistan’s Justice System Fails to Serve Women
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In Uzbekistan’s patriarchal society, violence against women, especially within family settings, is an everyday affair. Fathers are justified for their “efforts” to raise their daughters right and protecting family honor while husbands and their relatives are justified in molding a new wife  into their family’s lifestyle. Women are not seen as individuals, but as an extension of men – of father, brother, and husbands.

A new study, however, also finds that even the judicial system in the country does not see a woman as an individual, but as a “wife” who should prefer to forgive an abusive husband rather than push for his punishment.

Annually, around 40,000 cases of gender-based violence are reported to law enforcement bodies in Uzbekistan, and almost all victims are women. Eighty-five percent of all violence against women takes place at home, making domestic violence the most prevalent type of gender-based violence. In the first seven months of 2023, for example, 21,871 women applied for protection orders; 84.7 percent needed protection from close family members, husbands and mothers-in-law mostly.

A similar proportion was reported earlier by Chair of the Senate Tanzila Nazarbaeva. She noted that between 2021 and 2022, over 72,000 complaints of harassment and violence against women and girls reached law enforcement agencies. More than 61,000 of them, or approximately 85 percent, occurred at home.

But those are only reported cases. Due to socioeconomic dependence on men, lack of support from wider society, stigma, and pressure, many victims do not seek help, especially from police.

Between April and September 2022, a research institute under the jurisdiction of the State Committee for Family and Women conducted a study among 420 women across five geographic units of Uzbekistan – the Republic of Karakalpakstan, Kashkadarya, Surkhandarya, Samarkand regions, and Tashkent city. The study found that only 38.8 percent of women reported abuse and harassment they faced to mahalla representatives, while 30.4 percent reached out to friends and relatives. In serious cases, only 22.4 percent sought help from law enforcement, 6.3 percent from social workers and psychologists, 5.5 percent contacted hotlines, and 4.6 percent went to hospitals.

It took immense effort and pressure from civil society activists for Tashkent to finally criminalize domestic violence in April 2023.

In their new study, Utkirbek Kholmirzaev and Zayniddin Shamsidinov from Tashkent State University of Law examined 10,462 court decisions on domestic violence cases, both administrative and criminal, from May to December 2023 shedding light on new angles of an old problem. 

One interesting finding that came from the study is that the majority of domestic violence cases that reach the courts involve physical abuse. Of 10,091 administrative domestic violence cases studied, 53 percent “involved physical violence resulting in minor bodily harm.” 

The two researchers note that this is because women (and the authorities) often either do not perceive verbal or psychological abuse as violence or do not consider the abuse to be worth taking to court “as it may adversely affect their relationships with their husbands.” The only exception is if psychological abuse is systematic. 

Recent statistics published in the media, however, show an increase in psychological abuse. As the protection orders for gender-based violence were introduced, initially more women sought protection due to physical violence, but in recent years, this has changed. In 2020, for example, 46.2 percent of all protection orders were given to women because of physical abuse they faced while 42.5 percent were given to protect women from psychological abuse. In 2022, however, only 27.9 percent of all protection orders were given due to physical abuse, while 54.9 percent of all protection orders were issued due to psychological abuse. 

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Domestic Violence Cases are more Common in Rural Settings

Kholmirzaev and Shamsidinov found that 82 percent of domestic violence cases that reached courts took place in rural areas. Although the urban and rural populations are equal in number, domestic violence, especially in its criminal form, is most prevalent in rural settings. As of 2024, in Uzbekistan there are 18 million people living in rural areas and another 18.7 million in cities. The researchers also note that in rural areas there is a “higher severity of physical violence,” making up 53 percent of domestic violence vis-a-vis 34 percent of physical abuse in domestic violence court cases in cities. 

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The Family Institution Is Prioritized

Kholmirzaev and Shamsidinov also found that despite the severity of domestic violence, most perpetrators do not face jail time. Rather, the judicial system “prioritize[s] preservation of family relations” and pushes for reconciliation. The researchers noted that 61 percent of criminal cases related to domestic violence were closed due to reconciliation. 

The reconciliation clause under Article 66.1 of the Criminal Code allows for women to close a case, except in aggravating circumstances. Law enforcement bodies are obligated to make sure that the woman is not doing so under pressure. 

Administrative cases are a bit different since “cases of domestic violence do not fall under the jurisdiction of reconciliation in the Administrative Offenses Code,” noted the authors. So judges “circumvent” the situation with the help of Article 21 of the Administrative Code, which exempts perpetrators from liability due to the insignificance of an offense. 27.9 percent of administrative cases related to domestic violence studied were terminated as the violence was found to be “insignificant.” 

“They justified their decisions through restorative mechanisms such as ‘reconciling the parties,’ ‘absence of claims to each other,’ ’acknowledgment of guilt and remorse,’ as well as efforts to preserve family relationships,” noted the authors.

The courts, in referring to women not as fellow citizens or individuals with their own agency, but as “wives” also signals the judicial system’s biased approach. “In domestic violence cases, judges often perceive the victims not just as ‘human’ but as ‘wives,’ focusing on family dynamics rather than individual rights,” noted the authors in their publication. 

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One explanation for the courts pushing for reconciliation might be an increasing divorce rate across the country. “The government, in its efforts to preserve families and reduce divorce rates, supports the facilitation of divorce proceedings through the reconciliation of spouses, creating favorable conditions for such court behavior,” explained Kholmirzaev and Shamsidinovn. To note, despite the steady growth in population, the number of divorces rose from 17,794 in 2010 to nearly 50,000 in 2023. Meanwhile, the number of registered marriages has remained constant, at around 300,000 marriages annually. 

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“Victim-blaming” the in Legal System

Kholmirzaev and Shamsidinov’s research also found that the courts punish women who are victims of administrative offenses in cases of domestic violence. When women respond to an insult or physical harm from their abusers with similar acts, both parties might claim to be victims of domestic abuse. The courts dismiss the provocative circumstances that led women to resort to insult or abuse, or do not see the retaliation as a self-protective measure. “In the Andijan district, out of 10 randomly selected cases for qualitative analysis, female victims are held accountable in 6 instances,” noted the authors. Similar cases are found in other regions too. 

The fact that most judges who review domestic violence cases are men provides a partial explanation. The researchers mentioned that out of 347 judges who reviewed the domestic violence cases under study, only 14 of them (4 percent) were females. Women’s rights advocates and NGOs often report about the prevalence of “deep rooted patriarchal attitudes and stereotypes about gender roles” among police officers and judges in Uzbekistan. The fact that most judges are men does not help. As of 2022, there are 1,278 judges working across the country and only 174 (13.6 percent) of them are women. The number of female judges has been rising in recent years. In 2021, for example, there were only 158 female judges.

Violence against women and girls, especially in family settings, has gained wide attention in Uzbekistan only recently. Until 2018-2019, the public would widely refer to domestic violence as a “family” issue. Introducing a set of new measures such as protection orders, rehabilitation shelters for the victims of gender-based violence, and the criminalization of domestic violence are only initial steps in guaranteeing the safety of women. 

Implementation of those measures is hindered by deeply rooted societal norms and biases. Kholmirzaev and Shamsidinov’s research shows how women face challenges within the legal system and are often blamed or penalized for defending themselves against abuse. The laws have changed but the patriarchal attitude among the people, including among judges, has not. The underrepresentation of women among judges only exacerbates this issue, reinforcing patriarchal attitudes within the legal system. To truly defend women, more comprehensive measures need to be taken.