Op-ed

Her husband gave her a concussion. Her father said “don’t fight back”

In the new report “Call Me When He Tries to Kill You,” Human Rights Watch finds there are few safe places for abused women in Kyrgyzstan

Young women in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Nearly one-third of women in Kyrgyzstan experience abuse by a spouse or partner. (Hillary Margolis / Human Rights Watch)

When I met Aigul in rural Kyrgyzstan, it had been a year since her husband threw a mug at her head, causing a concussion and wound that hospitalized her for 10 days. This was only one of many attacks Aigul (all survivors’ names are pseudonyms) suffered at the hands of her husband. Over the years, she said, he beat her regularly, even while she was pregnant. “There were a lot of bruises and black eyes…. I had loose teeth because he beat me on the mouth.”

Domestic violence is widespread in Kyrgyzstan, affecting nearly one-third of women and girls ages 15-49, according to the government’s own numbers.

Like many survivors of domestic violence I spoke to in Kyrgyzstan, Aigul did not leave her abusive husband—she felt she had nowhere to go. As is common practice, she moved into her husband’s family home when they married. Then, like many women, she became dependent on her husband and his family for food and shelter.

Women who return to their own families after marriage—even because of abuse—are often seen as shameful and burdensome. Aigul told her father about the beatings and sought refuge at his house, but he turned Aigul and her baby away, telling her to put up with the violence and “don’t fight back.”

Aigul considered reporting the abuse to police, but she knew her husband would kick her out of the house if she filed a complaint. “I put up with his beatings,” she said, “but at least I have a place to stay.”

Kyrgyzstan’s own 2003 domestic violence law guarantees access to services for survivors, including shelter, yet shelter space remains scarce, and almost no crisis centers or shelters get government support. In the capital of Bishkek, for example, the sole shelter that reported receiving government funding offers 15 places for abused women and their children in a city population of approximately 950,000.

Of nine crisis centers I visited in three areas of Kyrgyzstan, only four were able to provide any shelter services. A staff member at one shelter said that it is regularly overcrowded—women and children sometimes sleep on the floors or in the corridors. A former crisis center director said that on some occasions she resorted to bringing women and their children to her own home for lack of alternatives. Staff at two crisis centers said they had suspended shelter services due to lack of funding.

Women who did access shelters and other crisis center services could not overstate the relief such spaces provide. Several told me that, after arriving at a shelter, they felt safe for the first time in months, or even years.

Unfortunately, too many women in Kyrgyzstan are unable to access this type of safe haven. The few existing shelters tend to be in urban areas, leaving rural women isolated from assistance. Even in cities that do have a shelter, women may not be aware of it, or of other available services for survivors of violence.

Like Aigul, Zahida, who lives in Bishkek, withstood years of abuse by her husband. When I met her, they remained married despite his brutal violence. After one beating, Zahida was hospitalized for 15 days. Another time, he attempted to suffocate her with a pillow. But Zahida said she saw no way out. “I wanted to leave,” she said, “but I had nowhere to go, so I stayed.”

Women in Kyrgyzstan who feel trapped in abusive relationships should not have to withstand violent attacks in order to have a roof over their heads.

Kyrgyzstan’s government should live up to the promise of its own domestic violence law and ensure survivors can access emergency shelters to escape abuse, including in rural areas. The government should also provide more support to transitional housing programs and psychosocial, medical, and legal services that are critical for survivors.

International donor governments should make such shelters and related services a funding priority. Without safe spaces, women facing domestic abuse in Kyrgyzstan remain at grave risk.

Hillary Margolis is a researcher in the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch. Her work is available here, and you can follow her on twitter @hillarymargo.

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