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August 05, 2022

Breaking the silence to end gender-based violence in Kyrgyzstan

Editor's note: this article contains graphic descriptions of violence. 

A horrendous sexual violence case has recently shaken Kyrgyz society to the core.

Over a six-months period, a 13-year-old girl was repeatedly raped by four men, two of whom are police officers. Having left no stone unturned and fearing that the perpetrators might fall through the cracks of the criminal justice system, the girl’s family went to the media to attract public attention. This incident - the latest of the recent spate of violence cases in the country - sparked mass protests in the two major cities of Bishkek and Osh, demanding justice for the girl, punishment for the perpetrators and resignation of the country’s Internal Affairs Minister for failing to act. 

Silencing discourse

Different organisations and activist groups shared an open letter calling on President Sadyr Japarov to have an emergency meeting on the dire situation of women in the country.

Activists also launched a campaign to help the family, and managed to crowdfund over 600,000 KG Soms (about USD $7,000) in just two days. This is the approximate equivalent to the amount annually allocated by the state to support the 17 crisis centres operating in the country, which provide legal, psychological, medical and financial support, as well as shelter to survivors of domestic violence and other violent crimes against women. 

While civil society in Kyrgyzstan has demonstrated an unprecedented level of unity and action around this particular case, official reactions have ranged from empty promises to attacks on activists and journalists to attempts to cover up the situation.

"Why write [about it] and add to the pain?” asked the Deputy Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers of the Kyrgyz Republic, Edil Baisalov, responding to a tweet condemning the crime and police involvement.

Baisalov’s motive is simple - to not air dirty linen in public. Officials, including the chairman of the cabinet of ministers and his deputy, voiced concerns that such coverage might result in a stressed and unhappy population, as well as contribute to the country’s negative public image, which would ultimately affect tourism. Their solution is to silence the public discourse. This is not acceptable. 

A national epidemic 

Gender-based violence is a sobering and widespread reality in Kyrgyzstan. Our country was recognised the most unsafe for women in Central Asia and ranked 97th out of 170 countries in the 2021 Women Peace and Security Index.

According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, there were a total of 10,756 crimes against women and girls registered in 2018. Of these, 874 fall under the category of serious and extremely serious crimes, including 213 rape cases. These numbers, however, are far from reality, as only a small percentage of cases gets reported, and even fewer cases are prosecuted.

Kyrgyz law enforcement and justice systems are irresponsive, unprofessional and corrupt, creating an environment of impunity where victims are pressured not to report incidents or drop the charges and perpetrators avoid criminal responsibility. 

"Their solution is to silence the public discourse. This is not acceptable."

Despite ratifying key international conventions promoting gender equality and protection of women and having one of the most progressive gender-related regulatory frameworks in Central Asia, the country has continuously failed to protect women and girls due to lack of political will and capacity. The infrastructure to respond to the existing level of violence against women is inadequate. Before 2021, there was not a single state crisis center or shelter for violence survivors in the country. 

The essential thing to understand about violence against women and girls is that it is preventable. Experts agree that rates of violence can be substantially reduced when specific targeted solutions are used in concert.

However, international and regional mechanisms we currently have are not enough. We need a new global treaty  specific to violence against women that would attract funding to violence prevention, require legal reform and training for first respondents, including police officers, health professionals and judges, as well as introduce a metrics-based reporting framework to monitor implementation and progress achieved. 

Gender-based violence is an economic disaster affecting the well-being of survivors, their immediate families and communities and countries at large. Associated costs total 5.5 percent of the global economy. Yet, global initiatives to address violence against women attract about 11 cents per female.

The proposed globaltreaty aims to address this particular issue by increasing this amount to one dollar per woman on earth. It would also help those on the frontline: women’s rights activists and practitioners who usually work under pressure and with limited resources. 

Meanwhile, court hearings on the case of the 13-year old victim continue to be postponed on different pretexts, and the defendants have not admitted their guilt. So why write about this and add to the pain? Because pain exists whether or not it gets reported. Media coverage and public scrutiny won’t allow such cases to be easily swept under the rug and bring hope that justice will be served.

We need to be vocal and loud to hold our governments accountable. It’s not enough that local laws and policies are in place. We need the global community to come together to hold each other accountable, to publicly draw attention to these issues until there is protection from violence for women and girls everywhere. 

Image by Joshua Rawson Harris.