In Kyrgyzstan, it's known as ala kachuu or "bride kidnapping". Long regarded as a traditional practice, thousands of women are abducted from their family homes each year, either by force or trickery. Although many cases of ala kachuu are actually consensual (providing willing couples a way of way of eloping without parental consent), involuntary ala kachuu remains common as well. Since it often goes unreported, the actual number of bride kidnappings is unknown although Kyrgyszstan Ombudsman Tursunbek Akun estimates that more than 8,000 young women are kidnapped each year. Despite being illegal under Article 155 of Kyrgyzstan's Criminal Code, only a handful of ala kachuu cases ever reach the courts. Not only are local police disinclined to investigate bride kidnapping cases, but families are often reluctant to take back woman who have been kidnapped. As a result, almost no ala kachuu cases have ever been successfully prosecuted and many abductees, abandoned by their families, later commit suicide.
Despite the shroud of secrecy that often surrounds ala kachuu, most local civil groups agree that bride kidnappings have risen sharply since 1991 when Kyrgyzstan became an independent republic. Prior to that time, bride kidnappings were banned by the Soviet authorities and involuntary cases were almost unknown. With the return of local rule, villages have become divided over legal and religious recognition of ala kachuu marriages. While many brides are afraid to speak out due to fear of retaliation and social stigma, a few women have been willing to talk to international media sources. In one interview, a bride who only wished to be known as "Totugul" reported that she was taken from her village in eastern Kyrgyzstan by a man from a nearby village. Persuaded to marry her abductor in a religious ceremony, she and her two children were later abandoned by her husband. Since the marriage had never been registered with the state, Totugul found herself in a legal limbo shared by many Central Asian women. Having an unregistered marriage left her with almost no legal options over forcing her husband to provide child support. “My marriage was not registered and no one will help me. Our [village] women’s committee has talked to many government officials but, because our marriages are unregistered, we [bride kidnapping victims] don’t have rights,” she said. Conservative Kyrgyz consider any attempt at opposing bride kidnappings as a cause for shame. The incidence of bride kidnappings varies sharply across Kyrgyzstan with some areas reporting that up to 45% of the women who married in 2010 and 2011 were abducted from their homes.
For family members and their lawyers who break the tradition of silence, getting police to act on ala kachuu complaints is often impossible due to implicit approval of the practice by many local police. Insisting that ala kachuu is a tradition, many police either insist on bribes to help and can even engage in bride kidnappings themselves. Even when police are motivated to act, they can refuse to intervene unless the victim herself agrees to press charges. In many bride kidnapping cases, the abductee is typically held in the husband's household with no way of contacting family members for assistance. While abducted women are technically free to refuse to be married against their will, they often face enormous moral pressure both from their husband's family and even from their own family (given the stigma involved). After a bride is married, the likelihood of her reporting the kidnapping is virtually nil since it would mean pressing charges against her husband and in-laws.
According to Marina Edigeeva, a human rights lawyer with the Adilet legal clinic in northwestern Kyrgyzstan, most kidnapped brides have few legal protections under Kyrgyz law. "Many marriages are unregistered because the bride kidnapping is illegal. It is the man’s decision not to register the marriage because initially he isn't sure how long she will stay, or if she will try to run away", Edigeeva says. Despite the efforts of human rights organizations to gain better legal protections for women in informal unions, initiatives to strengthen laws against ala kachuu and help women in unregistered marriages remain stalled. Kyrgyzstan's parliament, largely dominated by men from regions where bride kidnappings are common, has consistently voted down legislation banning clerics from blessing unregistered marriages. Given the widespread popularity of ala kachuu, as well as polygamy which is also illegal in Kyrgyzstan, little progress is expected in the near future on an issue that has polarized the country.
To date, there has been little consistent international pressure on Kyrgyzstan to end the practice of bride kidnappings. To raise public awareness on the local level, civil rights organizations and youth groups have launched a series of video-making workshops sponsored by the Kyrgyz NGO Open Line to educate villagers about the harm caused by bride kidnappings and to combat the stigma associated with returning a kidnapped bride to her home. According to one of the producers of a video titled "Women are not livestock!":
There is an article in the criminal code - 155 - that should punish the stealing of women for marriage. We want this law to work. For some reason, [in Kyrgyzstan] when someone steals livestock, he is sternly punished, but when he steals a woman, he isn't punished. We want to get across to society that a woman is a person deserving of love…we want to lobby the parliament so that [law 155] works, or to change this law [from “abduction of a woman with the aim of entering marriage”] to simply “abduction of a person.”
Despite the obvious frustration many Kyrgyz feel over ala kachuu, the bride kidnappings continue.