Aida Kasymalieva, Kyrgyzstan’s youngest female member of parliament, was stunned when her male colleagues walked out as she spoke at a session on women’s issues in a nation rife with domestic violence, child marriage and bride kidnappings.
Kasymalieva knew these issues weren’t a priority in the Kyrgyz parliament, having reported as a journalist for over 10 years on women migrants, child marriage and the often brutal abduction of young women who are then forced into marriage.
But Kasymalieva, 33, was surprised by the total disregard for issues impacting women in the majority Muslim country in central Asia bordering China, which is home to about six million people.
“We were discussing assignments, grants, roads, and all men were sitting in the hall then the parliamentary hour [on gender issues] started … and all men in the hall just stood up and went,” Kasymalieva said during an interview in her apartment in Bishkek, where she lives with her 11-year-old daughter. “Men will never think about domestic violence, kidnapping.”
But while she does not expect the attitude of male parliamentarians to change in a hurry, Kasymalieva believes having more women enter politics is necessary in order to start bringing about some change for women.
In 2005, the Kyrgyz parliament was made up of only men but a gender quota was adopted after various campaigns and the law now requires that women make up a third of party candidate lists.
Currently Kyrgyzstan has 23 women among its 120 MPs, according to Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) data, all of whom are members of the Forum of Women MPs, a multi-party caucus founded in 2011 that has been credited for putting women and girls on the political and legislative agenda.
This has helped address such issues as domestic violence and the practice of bride kidnapping which continues throughout the country despite being criminalised in 2013 and tougher sentences of up to 10 years in jail introduced.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in a 2015 report said it was “deeply concerned that bride kidnapping appears to be socially legitimized and surrounded by a culture of silence and impunity and that cases of bride kidnapping remain underreported”.
It said there had been only one conviction for bride kidnapping since 2008 even though searches on YouTube find numerous film of distraught women being dragged away in broad daylight by uninvited suitors.
Official statistics on bride kidnapping do not exist but studies suggest that up to half of all marriages in Kyrgyzstan resulted from bride kidnapping and one-third are non-consensual.
UN Women cites data from 2013 from the NGO Women Support Centre, which said there were at least 11,800 cases of forced abduction of women and girls every year in Kyrgyzstan, with more than 2,000 of those girls reported being raped as well.
With cultural and societal views slow to change, Kasymalieva said problems still persist. “We have a law that tightens punishment of kidnapping … but its effect is very small,” she said. “Even if a girl found the courage to run away the night she was kidnapped … at the police station she might be told it was her fault.”
Kasymalieva said it was vital that women MPs worked together to tackle these issues.
Every woman MP goes back to her party and lobbies, trying to convince [male colleagues] to vote,” Kasymalieva said. “And we get in touch with journalists so that pressure comes from society too.”
Over the years the forum has secured increased legal protection for women and girls on a number of issues.
As well as Kyrgyzstan outlawing bride kidnapping, in 2016 it banned religious child marriages in 2016, where girls would be married in unregistered religious unions, and earlier this year passed a law improving protection for victims of domestic abuse.
During a visit to Nookat, a district in south-western Kyrgyzstan where bride kidnapping is rare but child marriage frequent, Kasymalieva said a new approach was needed. “Here families make deals with each other and girls get married at 14, 15. They go to an imam, they register their marriage and that’s it. If they divorce, if something happens, [the girl]’s left with nothing,” Kasymalieva said.
But she said the law banning religious child marriages is starting to work with imams leading Muslim services starting to refuse to officiate over marriages with underage girls.
Kasymalieva, who started her journalistic career working for Osh TV, her hometown’s TV channel, said transitioning from being a journalist to a politician was emotionally difficult at times. “As a journalist I did investigations and criticised the government and so people expected I would be an opposing politician. But I’ve decided to be a centrist and get experience for now,” she said.
Criticism towards her moderate approach in politics hasn’t been the only challenge Kasymalieva has had to face in her first steps on to the political stage.
“I struggled to get political support as I ran alone, without a ‘roof’ – men who look after you,” Kasymalieva said.
Kasymalieva ran in the parliamentary elections of 2015, but didn’t immediately get elected as her party, the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), won 38 seats while she was 52nd in the party’s parliamentary candidate list.
It was after those above her on her party’s list were assigned other political roles, that Kasymalieva joined parliament this year.
But she said despite a quota for 30 per cent of candidates to be women, two of the six parties in parliament still did not have any women in their ranks.
A 2016 UNDP report said women’s representation in the Kyrgyz parliament “remains open to all sorts of manipulations” with female members of parliament elected through the quota system often pressured to give up their seats after being elected.
In June this year, an amendment to the electoral law was passed stating that any members of parliament being replaced must be replaced by a person of the same gender.
“Again, when we discussed this bill about equality and quotas, men didn’t want to vote and we felt their resistance,” Kasymalieva said. “I hope that in the future … we won’t need an artificial quota to support women but for now I don’t see any solution other than the quota.”
This report from Bishkek is part of a project which has been co-funded by the European Journalism Centre (EJC) via its Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme (www.journalismgrants.org).