Frontline World

KYRGYZSTAN - The Kidnapped Bride, March 2004

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "The Kidnapped Bride"

Marriage by Abduction

On the Roof of the World

Economy, Government, Bride Kidnapping

Society and Culture, Women's Rights/Human Rights


Should the international community intervene when cultural traditions clash with modern notions of women's rights?


Images of landscapes, people and culture in Kyrgyzstan
Facts & Stats

• Land and People
• Culture
• Economy
• Government and Social Infrastructure
• Women and Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan

Land and People

The Kyrgyz Republic is located in Central Asia. Commonly referred to as Kyrgyzstan, it is one of the former Soviet states in the region that gained independence in 1991, along with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The smallest "Stan" -- it's slightly smaller than South Dakota -- Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked nation of 79,400 square miles (198,500 sq km), bordered by China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Kyrgyzstan, sometimes dubbed "the Switzerland of Central Asia," is famous for its dramatic landscape of snowcapped mountains, glaciers and high-altitude lakes. More than 94 percent of the country's terrain is mountainous.

Within its seven provinces, or oblasts, the country's climate ranges from polar in the Tien Shan mountain range to subtropical in the southwestern Fergana Valley.

Kyrgyzstan is home to the world's largest natural-growth walnut forest.

Kyrgyzstan is a multiethnic state with a population of 4,892,808. It is home to more than 90 nationalities. The nation is 65 percent ethnic Kyrgyz, 18 percent Russian, 13 percent Uzbek, 2.5 percent Ukrainian, 2.4 percent German and 11.8 percent of other national origin.

The average Kyrgyz is 22.7 years old (the average American is 35.8 years old). Life expectancy is 63.5 years.

Seventy-five percent of Kyrgyz are Muslim, and 20 percent are Russian Orthodox.

Both Kyrgyz and Russian are official languages in Kyrgyzstan.

As of 2002, 30 percent of Kyrgyz live in urban areas, and 65 percent live in rural areas.

Kyrgyzstan has an adult literacy rate of 97 percent.

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Modern Kyrgyzstan is located on the Silk Road, the ancient and medieval trade route linking East and West. The southern city of Osh, the second-largest city in modern Kyrgyzstan, was a major trading center on the famed caravan route and has been on record as a settlement for more than 3,000 years.

Bishkek, the capital city in the north of the country, is named after a wooden churn used to make koumiss, fermented mare's milk, an alcoholic drink made in spring and summer when mares are nursing their young.

The Kyrgyz inherited a storytelling tradition called Manas when Soviet scholars wanted to imbue Central Asia with regionally distinct cultural traditions. The original legends, about a hero named Manas, are no longer passed along orally as they were when they were first introduced, but Manas himself remains a heroic national icon.

The yurt was the traditional movable, tentlike home of the nomadic Kyrgyz, and it is still used today as the herding economy continues in the country. The yurt is a strong symbol of national identity -- the design of Kyrgyzstan's flag is based on the structure's circular smoke opening.

A distinctive part of the Kyrgyz national costume is the kalpak, a tall, embroidered felt hat.

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The Kyrgyz economy has had a difficult time transitioning out of communism. Fifty-five percent of Kyrgyzstan's population lives below the poverty line.

The average annual income in Kyrgyzstan is $280.

Although only 7 percent of the land in Kyrgyzstan is arable, 55 percent of the population works in the agricultural sector. Cotton, tobacco, wool and meat are Kyrgyzstan's main agricultural products. Only tobacco and cotton are exported in significant quantities.

Kyrgyzstan's industrial exports include gold, mercury, uranium, natural gas and electricity.

Its trading partners are Switzerland, Germany, Russia, United Arab Emirates, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and the United States.

Kyrgyzstan became a member of the World Bank in 1992 and a member of the World Trade Organization in 1998.

In 1993, Kyrgyzstan was the first country of the former Soviet Union to introduce its own currency, the som, after using the ruble during Russian rule.

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Government and Social Infrastructure

Kyrgyzstan is a republic, with a president who acts as chief of state and a prime minister who heads the government.

Parliament elected Askar Akaev president of the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic in 1990.

The human rights record of Akaev's government was called into question by Human Rights Watch. The watchdog organization cited such government actions as bringing criminal libel charges against those who criticized it publicly, using police violence against demonstrators in an incident in 2002, and arresting increasing numbers of independent Muslims since September 11, 2001.

In early 2005, Akaev was removed from power by a popular revolt that was fueled by allegations of corruption. After resigning, Akaev fled to Russia, and the outgoing parliament appointed Kurmanbek Bakiev, an economist and opposition leader, as acting president and prime minister.

New presidential elections will be held in July 2005.

Kyrgyzstan prides itself on a strong universal education system; the government estimates that, since the 1970s, almost two-thirds of the country's adult population has received at least a secondary education.

In 2001, the United States set up a military base at Manas International Airport in Kyrgyzstan to assist in its war in Afghanistan. In 2003, a Russian military base was also established, within 19 miles (30 km) of the American base.

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Women and Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan

Note: Most information available about bride kidnapping among the ethnic Kyrgyz is from academic studies of the tradition. Because bride kidnapping is illegal in Kyrgyzstan today, gathering data from families who participate in the tradition is not a straightforward process, nor is determining whether a marriage resulted from a consensual or a nonconsensual kidnapping. Data gathered by academics vary from village to village. Bride kidnapping continues to be cast alternately as a nomadic cultural tradition and an endemic human rights violation.

The tradition of bride kidnapping, ala kachuu in Kyrgyz, was made illegal in Kyrgyzstan when the Soviet Union made efforts to transform marriage practices that limited women's freedom of choice, including child betrothals and arranged and kidnapped marriages.

Though it remains illegal in the Kyrgyz Republic, the frequency of kidnappings appears to have risen after independence and continues to be on the rise as an element of the reclamation of Kyrgyz identity after Soviet rule. There is little evidence that violations of the law against kidnapping are punished.

Bride kidnappings reportedly range from staged, consensual events that are planned after the bride and groom have been dating to violent, nonconsensual events planned by the family of the groom.

It's been estimated that up to a third of all ethnic Kyrgyz women in Kyrgyzstan may have been wedded in nonconsensual bride kidnappings.

Selected studies suggest that bride kidnapping is more common in Kyrgyzstan's villages than in its cities and that bride kidnappings that do take place in urban areas are more often consensual.

Incidents of bride kidnapping in Central Asia also have been recorded in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and the Caucasus. Similar rituals -- consensual and nonconsensual -- have been noted in Japan, China, Turkey, Ethiopia and Hmong communities.

Though women in Kyrgyzstan have played more prominently in government than elsewhere in Central Asia, women's rights appear to have suffered losses since the republic gained independence. Today, less than 7 percent of Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary seats are held by women, compared with the 34 percent held by women prior to independence in 1991.

The average annual salary of a woman in Kyrgyzstan is about $34, according the Women's Support Center in Bishkek.

Current Kyrgyz law does not protect women's land holdings in common-law marriages and gives land management rights to husbands, according to a 2004 report submitted to the United Nations by a coalition of women's rights organizations in Kyrgyzstan.

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Lonely Planet; CIA World Factbook; BBC News; National Statistical Committee of the Kyrgyz Republic; Library of Congress; Human Rights Watch; The Embassy of the Kyrgyz Republic to the United Kingdom; "Frequency of Non-Consensual Bride Kidnapping in the Kyrgyz Republic," by Russ L. Kleinbach, Ph.D., 2002; "Women, Marriage and the Nation-State: The Rise of Non-Consensual Bride Kidnapping in Post-Soviet Kazakhstan," by Cynthia Werner; "Kidnapping Brides in Kyrgyzstan: Prescriptive Human Rights Measures," by L.M. Handrahan, from The Fletcher Journal of Development Studies, 2000;