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Women in Central Asia reportedly feel unsafe everywhere

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The Diplomat notes that over the last few months, several horrific cases of violence against women have broken onto headlines in Central Asia.  In September, it was Asel Nogoibayeva, tortured by her ex-husband for hours in front of her 10-year-old son in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.  Nogoibayeva survived the attack, but her ex-husband — who was on probation from a rape charge at the time — cut off her nose and ears.  Then in early November Saltanat Nukenova died in a restaurant owned by her husband, former Minister of National Economy of Kazakhstan Kuandyk Bishimbayev, allegedly beaten to death after an argument.

Outrage reportedly poured out onto social media, but also exasperation.

“Women in Central Asia feel unsafe everywhere: in the streets and on public transport, at universities and in their workplaces; they feel unsafe around their husbands and ex-husbands and they have been repeatedly shown by their governments that their grievances and fears do not matter enough to prompt action,” Svetlana Dzardanova, a human rights and corruption researcher at Freedom for Eurasia and a member of the Every Woman Coalition, told The Diplomat.

In the interview, Ms. Dzardanova discusses the failures of regional governments to take action, and the role of “traditional values” discourse in derailing efforts to improve women’s lives.

“Instead of addressing the problem, [regional governments] focus on those who speak out about it,” Dzardanova said.

According to her, there have been several horrific incidents of violence against women in Central Asia in recent months.

A little information about the scale of violence against women in Central Asia reportedly breaks through into the news, therefore “we do not know much about such incidents.”

The challenge reportedly lies in the scarcity of comprehensive data. It is scattered, inadequately collected, and often inaccessible, making it difficult to see and follow ongoing trends. Furthermore, violence against women takes various forms, some of which remain difficult to document and monitor, let alone prosecute, according to Dzardanova.

Many of the most disturbing incidents of violence against women in Central Asia happen in their homes – places where they should have been the safest – and at the hands of those they know, specifically intimate partners.

The Committee of Administrative Police of the Interior Ministry of Kazakhstan reported in the beginning of 2023 a staggering 100,000 annual domestic violence complaints, tripling over the past five years.

The Committee for Women and Family Affairs under the Government of Tajikistan reportedly received 1,075 gender-based violence-related complaints in the first half of 2023 alone.  U.N. reports indicate that one-third of women in Tajikistan fall victim to domestic violence.

Uzbekistan faced a significant challenge as well, with 21,871 protection orders issued to women in the first seven months of the year, 84.7 percent of which were related to incidents within families.

The Interior Ministry of the Kyrgyz Republic registered 10,416 cases of domestic violence over the first ten months of 2023, a 20 percent increase when compared to the same period last year.

Kyrgyzstan has been repeatedly rated the most dangerous country in Central Asia for women by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.

It is noted that having good laws is not enough and even these require further improvements to account for existing gaps allowing the perpetrators to avoid punishment.  One of such legal loophole is reportedly the conciliation of parties in gender-based violence (GBV) cases, which is not uncommon due to existing pressure on victims by perpetrators, family members, and wider communities.

The expert notes that activists alone cannot deal with the scale of violence women are facing even if supported by international donor organizations.  Governments must adhere to their national and international commitments instead of trying to silence civil society.

Gender activists and journalists are persecuted by the state for drawing attention to the problem, calling out the authorities responsible, and demanding meaningful action to protect women. Officials in Kyrgyzstan, for example, are more concerned about the coverage of GBV cases than the cases themselves and mostly worry about the effect on the country’s international image and potential loss of tourist interest.

In Kazakhstan, authorities reportedly try to control the agenda and dominate public discourse by allowing Zhana Adamdar, a pro-presidential group, to hold a rally against gender-based violence while denying the same opportunity to Feminita and targeting the well-known nonprofit organization NeMolchi.kz (Don’t Be Silent) for not remaining silent.

It seems as though these governments learned the wrong lessons. Instead of addressing the problem, they focus on those who speak out about it.  For women to be safe in Central Asia, states in the region not only need to have laws and institutional infrastructures in place but also need to realize that development is not possible when half of their population is not protected.  The three key players — government, civil society, and the international community — need to combine their efforts to witness positive change in the situation.

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