Nazgul, then 19, was refilling cups of tea at the roadside café where she worked when three young men arrived. She served them and returned to the kitchen. When she reemerged, the men grabbed and carried her to their car. After pushing her into the backseat, they sped down the road to a neighboring village. Once there, Nazgul was taken inside an unfamiliar house where strangers forced a white wedding scarf on her head.
A single teenager that morning, Nazgul was a married woman by nightfall. It was the first time that she had met the man who would become her husband.
12,000 brides kidnapped every year
Although it is illegal, bride kidnapping (known as kyz ala kachuu in Kyrgyz) is common in rural Kyrgyzstan. According to the Women’s Support Centre (WSC) in Bishkek, almost 12,000 women and girls are kidnapped every year. Of these, more than 2,000 are raped as a way to “seal the deal” and to discourage them from running home to their parents. Many more experience physical violence at the hands of their kidnappers, poor living conditions, and shattered dreams and hopes for the future. And thousands of kidnapped women who later divorce or are abandoned by their husbands are left impoverished and stigmatized.
A single teenager that morning, Nazgul was a married woman by nightfall.
Despite the wide-spread belief that bride kidnapping is a Kyrgyz tradition, the practice is relatively new. Researchers have found that, while consensual kidnappings historically occurred as a form of elopement, non-consensual kidnapping were very rare.
But, in recent decades, the practice has increased as poverty, unemployment and the disintegration of traditional kinship structures engendered a sense of lawlessness and frustration among young men. These men may not be able to afford a bride price  or wedding. They may not perceive women to be their equal in decision-making ability. They may not, in fact, know how to approach girls that they admire. And so they kidnap.
Few legal protections for women and girls in unregistered marriages
Recent laws supported by local civil society organisations and forward-thinking Parliamentarians have strengthened the punishment for abducting a woman and forcing her into marriage. While abductors used to face a maximum of three years in prison, they now face seven. If the woman is under the legal marriage age of 17, the maximum sentence is ten years.
Despite its illegality, however, bride kidnapping continues with negative repercussions for kidnapped women. Because forced marriages are illegal (they are illegal on two levels. The practice itself is illegal, and many kidnapped women are under the legal age of marriage), unions like Nazgul’s are not registered with the state. In many cases, couples live with the husbands’ parents and have no assets of their own.
Even those rights that the victims could usually claim in cases of divorce or abandonment – alimony, child support, and marital property – are not available to them because the legal provisions protecting their rights are not activated in unregistered marriages. In addition, because these kidnappings happen to very young women, they interrupt the girls’ schooling and leave her without the skills or education that she needs to support herself.
Protecting the rights of kidnapped girls
Separated from her husband and with two young sons, Nazgul has no job, no assets, and no support from her husband or her in-laws. She has nothing beyond the generosity of her family and lives in a small house with her parents and siblings. She does not have access to or control over land. Her husband’s family owns a home, land and livestock, but – like thousands of other divorced or abandoned young women – Nazgul has no rights to their property under law or custom and does not receive child support. She frequently struggles to find food for her children and other necessities, like winter clothing.
Protecting the rights of young, kidnapped women requires a multi-pronged approach. The newly introduced harsher penalties for those found guilty of bride kidnapping is the first step toward counteracting these behaviors; ensuring that the law is implemented is equally important. The next step requires finding ways to protect women’s rights in unregistered marriages. In some other countries, for example, informal marriage is sufficient proof of a right to marital property. And, finally, community level programmes must focus on identifying and addressing behaviours and attitudes that are harmful to young women, as it is societal acceptance that enables bride kidnapping.
Despite the challenges that she faces, Nazgul has plans for the future. In the short-term, she would like to sue her husband for child support. In the long-term, she dreams of buying her own plot of land in the village for a house and garden. She will raise her children there, near her family. When she has her own house and land, she will plant potatoes and corn for food. And she will do it without a husband. “No, I will not remarry,” she said. “I think that it’s enough.”