BISHKEK -- Kyrgyzstan saw a spike in domestic violence in the trying year of 2020, and lawmakers are introducing amendments to the law designed to protect victims.
Police recorded more than 9,000 domestic violence cases in 2020, about 3,000 more than in 2019.
One reason for the increase could be the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting "cabin fever" of families stuck at home; however, the main problem is the impunity enjoyed by most offenders, human rights defenders and lawmakers say.
Violence at home
Alina (not her real name), 14, was living with her father during the COVID-19 quarantine last April.
Her father beat her repeatedly, causing neighbours to report the assaults to the Bishkek-based NGO League of Defenders of the Rights of the Child.
"She urgently needed to be isolated from her father, her abuser," said Nazgul Turdubekova, director of the NGO. "During the state of emergency in the country, [the government] set up roadblocks everywhere and put the Defence Ministry in charge of them."
The roadblocks meant to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 made it difficult for the League's staff to reach the girl's house.
"Law enforcement and social services themselves were in a difficult position [and] they couldn't help," she said, referring to the military's refusal to let them pass and to the agencies' many pandemic-related responsibilities.
"After long discussions we managed to get the girl out of the house, find her mother and put her in her mother's care," she said.
Another case of domestic violence during the quarantine gained notoriety last May when Aman, 21, described on Facebook how he found out that his sister's husband was beating her.
Aman called the police and went to his sister's house even though it was after the COVID-19 curfew. The police officers who came said that everything was all right.
"How can everything be all right when [he] cruelly beat my sister?" wrote Aman. "He mockingly kicked her so hard all over that she wet herself; when she was already lying on the floor, he dragged her by the hair in front of their small children."
Thanks to the publicity the case received, human rights activists became involved. Ultimately a court fined the husband, Maksat Jaanbayev, 60,000 KGS (about $700).
Impunity for domestic violence is the norm
Impunity for domestic violence is still the norm in Kyrgyzstan, Human Rights Watch (HRW) wrote in its annual report.
"Despite legislation, including amendments to the Criminal Procedural Code adopted in 2020, which provides better protections for victims of domestic violence, authorities do not fully enforce protective measures or hold perpetrators accountable," reads the report.
Out of 9,025 domestic violence incidents recorded in 2020, courts took up only 944, according to the Interior Ministry (MVD).
Recognising the growing problem, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in August of last year awarded $230,000 in grants to 11 civil society organizations in Kyrgyzstan to protect and support survivors of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. This was one of many recent instances of US assistance to Central Asia about this issue and related issues, such as human trafficking in the region.
The lockdown and the tensions arising from it might have fed a 65% rise in domestic violence cases in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same period of 2019, Vice Prime Minister Aida Ismailova said last June at a meeting of the National Council for Women's Affairs and Gender Development.
It all comes down to the law, which is incapable of stamping out domestic violence, said Turdubekova.
"Here in Kyrgyzstan, women and children aren't the only victims of violence: so are the elderly, people with disabilities and migrants' children -- practically all the vulnerable social strata," she said.
"When we're talking about children, it's impossible to put a stop to abuse until both parents learn to recognise the signs that their children are being abused, and the children need to learn this too."
Often children do not know how to stand up for their own rights because they consider the adult behaviour they see to be normal, said Turdubekova.
"That's why it's crucial that children learn to safeguard their personal space, from their parents like from anybody else, and when sexual acts take place, they need to understand that the adult's actions toward them aren't normal, and it's important for them to be able to tell their parents or others whom they trust," she said.
Abusers escape punishment
As the law stands, it works to protect abusers, say human rights activists.
Under Kyrgyz law, an abuser may escape punishment if the victim retracts the statement or if the parties reconcile before the trial, said Mukhayo Abduraupova, an activist from Osh who works at the Positive Dialogue NGO.
"We oppose this practice because it doesn't allow for preventing or lessening domestic violence," she said.
The law says there is a need for "disciplinary programmes and that the abuser and family need to complete a special programme so there is no violence in the family in the future," she said. "But as we know, there's no practice like that in Kyrgyzstan."
In other countries, the court sends the abuser to a psychologist, who determines whether this person is dangerous and whether others can continue living with him or her, Abduraupova said.
In Kyrgyzstan, if a medical examination determines that the victim sustained minor bodily injuries, authorities interpret the abuse as an administrative (non-criminal) offence.
The offender then has to do community service or pay a fine of 30,000 KGS (about $350).
The courts often impose the fine, which is billed to the family and not to the abuser himself, she said.
A fine of 30,000 KGS is a lot of money in a family's budget, and often times the woman ends up having to pay it, she said, referring to the courts' inability to protect women from having to split the fine for their own victimisation.
New government addresses domestic violence
Recently appointed Prime Minister Ulukbek Maripov addressed the issue of domestic violence at a session of the MVD's governing board February 12 in Bishkek.
"Every case of violence, including domestic violence, should not be ignored by law enforcement agencies," he said, noting the need to revise Kyrgyz law on the matter.
"Domestic violence should not be perceived as the purely private matter of a family," he said. "Such cases should not be hushed up, and society should develop a heightened level of intolerance to such occurrences."
Natalya Nikitenko, a member of parliament who chairs its committee on the rule of law and the fight against crime and corruption, also discussed recent efforts to reform the law.
"In the case of abusers, there has been nothing making it possible... to arrest or remove them at the time of the assault," she said.
"Now, during the pandemic, when the number of violent incidents has skyrocketed, we have introduced amendments saying that when a violent incident is reported, law enforcement will have the authority to detain the alleged perpetrator for up to 48 hours from the time of the assault."
However, very often, when authorities detain abusers and open criminal cases, the victim decides to reconcile under pressure from various parties, she said.
"The principle of retribution is flouted," explained Nikitenko.
As an example she recalled a notorious incident of violence in Suzak district, Jalal-Abad province.
Last June, viewers reacted with disgust to a video on social media, in which a man forced his wife to stand still, with car tires around her neck, while he slapped her and poured water over her head.
He received only two years' probation instead of jail time.
The Kyrgyz criminal code previously did not contain a definition of a family member or close relative who commits abuse, said Nikitenko.
"The amendments [aim to] strengthen the standards of liability when a family member or close relative is the abuser," she said. "There are cases where stepfathers, guardians, spouses or ex-spouses are doing the beating. Then the next thing you know, the parties reconcile because the victim... [supposedly] sustained minor bodily injury, even though the victim actually suffered physical or psychological trauma."
"During trials, under pressure from relatives who want to cover up the matter, courts classify a more severe case as less severe and release the parties for reconciliation," she said.
The bill is undergoing its third reading in parliament, and Nikitenko expects the amendments to pass this month.