The kidnapping of brides has been banned for decades in Kyrgyzstan, an ex-USSR Central Asian Republic lying north of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The law was tightened in 2013, with sentences of up to 10 years in prison for those who kidnap a woman to force her into marriage. Previously it was a fine of 2,000 soms, about £20.
Despite that, the medieval practise of ala kachuu (“take and run”) persists to this day. The Women Support Centre in Bishkek has estimated that 12,000 forced marriages take place every year and very few perpetrators are convicted.
About 80% of the girls kidnapped accept their fate, often on the advice of their parents. It is estimated that 2,000 women are raped by their future husbands each year, and are thus condemned to marry, because returning to their family would be a deep mark of shame. Fleeing brides also risk further violence and even death. Aizada Kanatbekova, 27, was found strangled to death two days after being snatched off the street by five men. The kidnapping took place in daylight in the centre of Bishkek (the capital city). Kanatbekova’s mother said police had laughed off her plea for help after the abduction and told her she’d soon be dancing at her daughter’s wedding.
In 2018, a woman was murdered and mutilated whilst seeking help in a police station. The victim, Burulai Turdaaly Kyzy, a 20-year-old medical student, was killed by the man who had kidnapped her. He stabbed her, then carved her initials and those of another man she had planned to marry on to the woman’s body. The officers had left the two of them alone in the waiting room, though she had made charges against him.
A feminist activist has developed a successful video game for mobile phones that aims to convince young people that kidnapping is not a tradition but a crime. Despite the country’s poverty, it has 134 mobile phone accounts per 100 people (it was 10 per 100 in 2005). Tatyana Zelenskaya designed the game’s graphics, working with the human rights organisation Open Line Foundation, which supports victims of bride kidnapping through counselling and legal advice,
Developers had hoped for 25,000 downloads. In just over six months, the app has already been downloaded more than 130,000 times. In the game, players witness the kidnapping of a best friend and must free her, while messages with suggestions prepared by psychologists, journalists and activists appear on the screen, as well as real telephone numbers that can be used in an emergency.
“The idea is to make the girls understand that they are masters of their own destiny. This is why we transform them into heroines capable of rebelling and changing the course of things,” said Zelenskaya. “For a generation of women who grew up with the idea that nothing is possible without a man’s approval, unhinging this concept is difficult.”