The German international broadcaster "Deutsche Welle" reported in 2017 that every 30 minutes a woman in Kyrgyzstan is being abducted and forced to marry. Young women being dragged into cars on the open road, usually by several men, and taken to their future husband's parents’ house – this is not regarded as a crime by many Kyrgyz, but rather as the preservation of a tradition.
However, a look into the past reveals that the custom never existed in this specific form before. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s that the number of bride abductions in Kyrgyzstan increased sharply due to social upheavals, increasing poverty and inappropriate return to alleged national traditions. Without doubt there have been abductions before but to a much lesser extent. In the magazine "Human rights for women" published by the women's rights organisation Terre des Femmes, author Anja Heifel describes this custom as an expression of wrongly understood masculinity and the subordinate gender role of women. In her opinion, the custom is an exciting change in the everyday life for young men of marriageable age – and an “entertainment” at the expense of young women.
“A good marriage begins with tears”
The paradox of „Ala kachuu“: Even the female family members of the kidnapper, who have often been forced into marriage themselves, become perpetrators during this patriarchal practice. It is their task to persuade the abducted woman in the kidnapper's house to agree to the marriage. The "bride" often knows her kidnappers only briefly or not at all. She is detained for several days sometimes and in some cases even raped.
A return to the parents' house, on the other hand, becomes impossible after spending one night in the house of the unknown man. The social stigma in a would be too grave. Women therefore often do not contradict their fate. Despite the fact that even in independent Kyrgyzstan a forced marriage is subject to criminal penalties. But only in very few cases the deprivation of liberty ends with criminal prosecution. A Kyrgyz saying gets to the heart of this powerlessness: "A good marriage begins with tears".
Svetlana, former participant of ifa’s CrossCulture Programme, does not want to accept this understanding of roles. Especially after coming dauntingly close to “Ala kachuu” during her studies in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. Back then, several young men tried to kidnap her friend and roommate. “On TV, bride abduction seems far away from one’s personal fate. But when it happens in your immediate proximity, the view changes. That touched me deeply”, Svetlana remembers this moment. With combined forces, the two students managed to prevent the kidnappers from carrying out their plan. However, the uncomfortable feeling stayed. “The tragedy of this story is that my roommate actually married her kidnapper a few months later”, says Svetlana. Since then, all contact has been lost between the two friends.
Bride abduction is the wrong way into the future of the country. With her project "Ala kachuu is no cool!" she has set herself the goal of convincing young people to acknowledge bride abduction for what it really is: a crime. In her opinion, it is essential that both young women and their parents become aware of their rights, duties and responsibilities. In order to establish common ground, project initiator Svetlana gathered various experts for a round table discussion at the beginning of the project "Ala kachuu is no cool!": human rights representatives, scientists, journalists, religious scholars and interested citizens exchanged information about legal bases and existing local projects and thus contributed to clarifying the role of politics and media.
Based on the results of the expert discussion, Svetlana and some supporters organised a four-day training for school children from suburban settlements of the capital of Bishkek. Under the guidance of expert trainers, students discussed stereotypical gender roles that can take the form of discrimination or domestic violence. Almost all participants brought personal experience to the workshop. Many knew kidnap victims or even men involved in a kidnapping. During the workshop they had the opportunity to exchange their experiences. A historian then brought light into the darkness of the transfigured tradition so that in the end, many participants were convinced that they did not want to take part in an abduction or even to protect people in need from it.
Besides the workshop, Russian and Kyrgyz information brochures were produced and distributed in more than 40 schools and seven cities across the country. The brochures are supposed to target especially young students and inform them about the alleged custom "Ala kachuu". At one point the number "155" can be read in large letters. The number represents the article of the Kyrgyz Penal Code which states that the abduction of a woman with the intention of marriage can be punished with a prison sentence of five to seven years. "Let the criminal know this!" is the demand in the brochure. "The article is public, which means that every witness - not just the victim - has the right to report the crime."
A short story also attracted a lot of attention: In a two-minute animated film, the young Kyrgyz woman Erkinay experiences an emotional journey of contradictory feelings and freedom: Despite the promise of marriage to her partner Akjol, she cannot defend herself against kidnapping. After all, her liberation only succeeds because the police, her parents and friends joined forces. The film reached more than twelve thousand young people via social media and stimulated discussions in relevant channels.
Looking back, Svetlana is pleased about the tangible results and the success of her commitment: "It is a great feeling to see people watching our film or holding the brochure in their hands and reacting to it. Only recently, a partner organisation in Bishkek supported us in printing our story in larger quantities. Now we have about 2,000 copies, which is fantastic," Svetlana says happily. " I hope that this is only my first step towards offering solutions to this societal issue." The ifa Alumna is particularly proud of the fact that human rights activists in the neighbouring country of Kazakhstan became aware of her project. Here, "Ala kachuu" is also a well-known issue. She now wants to distribute the designed information brochures and get involved against bride abduction.