Gender, Social Justice

Bride kidnappings are a reality in Kyrgyzstan. This is not a joke.

Nearly one third of marriages in Kyrgyzstan are non-consensual and the direct result of bridal abduction.

In 2011, Vice made a documentary to highlight a violent cultural practice in Kyrgyzstan known as “ala kachuu” (“grab and run”) or bride kidnapping. 

Over half a decade since the viral documentary, the abduction and forced marriage of ethnic Kyrgyzstani women remains a critically prevalent issue throughout the country.

But what is it exactly?

Bride kidnapping occurs when friends or relatives of the potential groom abduct the would-be bride and forcibly bring her to the groom’s home.

Once there, the groom’s female relatives will psychologically manipulate the distraught woman to consent to marriage.

This process can take hours or days, but the relentlessness of the groom’s relatives eventually wear the future bride down until she finally agrees. In some cases, the groom will rape the kidnapped bride so her desirability and marital status are thusly “defiled” in the eyes of a culturally conservative society, and she’s forced to consent to nuptials out of shame.

Nearly 1 in 5 girls in Kyrgyzstan are kidnapped and forced into marriage, the ages that include those far below the country’s legal age of 18.

This practice is responsible for a slew of mental issues stemming from the trauma of the practice on young brides, and higher instances of divorces, domestic violence, and even suicides.

Children born from these marriages tend to be underweight, which in turn have high correlations to things like lower education and health issues.

While the practice has technically been illegal since 1994, it was only in 2013 that legislation was passed penalizing kidnappers with up to ten years in jail and child marriages were officially banned in 2016. Yet despite the existence of these laws, their enforcement is extremely lax as kidnappers are rarely prosecuted.

Government records and statistics of the practice are virtually nonexistent, and the silence of officials on the matter lends to its continued perpetuation as a sinister part of Kyrgyz life.

What is perhaps most disheartening, is that the nonconsensual nature of the kidnappings is a relatively new phenomenon.

In a picture series by Noriko Hayashi, a photographer who spent months documenting the practice in Kyrgyz villages, an elderly Kyrgyz couple express their distaste for this new, more violent practice. “When we were young, it was consensual kidnapping. We knew each other well and exchanged love letters before the kidnapping. Nowadays, young people violently kidnap women and this is not our tradition,” they told Hayashi.

In addition to these first-hand reports, Russell Kleinbach, deputy director of the Kyrgyz Korgon Institute, collected data on bridal kidnapping and found that the practice was not common during Kyrgyzstan’s Soviet-era as it created conflict between families and the concept of nonconsensual marriage is expressly forbidden in Islam (which is the most widely held faith in the country).

Bridal kidnapping has only just been acknowledged as a serious human rights violation by the official government.

Numerous NGOs within and outside Kyrgyzstan have called for legislation to be more strictly enforced in conjunction with educational programs that can work to stigmatize the controversial practice as well as empower women.

But until that happens, it continues to disseminate the subjugation of Kyrgyz women and make marriage more of a nightmarish reality than a happy dream come true.