Marriage by kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan: a practice that stands the test of time 

Temps de lecture : 8 minutes

(Original: french)

Translated by: Inji Achour

Marriage by kidnapping is a common practice in Central Asia and especially in Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz name “Ala kachuu” to refer to this practice is literal: “catch her and run”. According to the United Nations (UN) Women, bride kidnapping “involves abducting a woman without her consent in order to force her to marry one of her captors. Perpetrators can use psychological coercion or physical force, including rape, to force the woman or girl into marriage. As with other forms of forced marriage, the key elements are: the abduction of a woman or girl, the absence of her consent, with the aim of marrying her[1]UN Women, « Defining other forms of forced marriage: bride kidnapping », UN Women Virtual Knowledge Centre to End Violence against Women and Girls, 28/01/2011, … Continue reading”. In the majority of cases, the future wife does not know her kidnapper. 

Pauline Jones Luong, in her book The Transformation of Central Asia: States and Societies from Soviet Rule to Independence[2]Pauline Jones Luong, The Transformation of Central Asia : States and Societies from Soviet Rule to Independence, Cornell University Press, 2004, p. 62, differentiates between four types of kidnappings: wife raiding, genuine bride thief, the mock bride thief and finally the ceremonial capture. Wife raiding occurs when men from one community raid another community and steal women. The genuine bride thief is the forcible abduction of a specific target by a man. The mock bride thief refers to the case where the bride consents to the abduction. Finally, the ceremonial capture describes the ritual that takes place with the full consent of the bride and her family. 

Although the practice is illegal, kidnappings continue in several Central Asian countries, including Kyrgyzstan, where we will focus our study. However, this allegedly “ancestral” practice is being questioned, especially by the new generations. 

A normalized violation of women’s rights in Kyrgyzstan 

The UN condemns this practice as a serious violation of human rights. Indeed, forced marriages are often followed by forcible confinement, rape and domestic violence, both physical and mental. These unions also result in higher rates of depression and suicide in women, divorce, and, according to a recent study from Duke University[3]Charles M. Becker, Bakhrom Mirkasimov, Susan Steiner, « Birth Outcomes », Springer Link, 02/08/2017,, possibly even a lower infant birth weight. 

Speeches on shame are strongly used as a deterrent. In Kyrgyz society, especially in rural areas, a celibate woman’s reputation can be irrevocably damaged if she spends a single night away from the family home. In the case of a kidnapping, this means that if the young woman does not marry her captor, she will be subject to the judgment of society. The pressure is even more effective as the shame also falls on the woman’s whole family. In short, the use of shame and tradition is a way for men to control women’s sexuality. Since divorce is not socially accepted, women who wish to do so risk being threatened or even killed by their husbands. Aisuluu, a Kyrgyz woman kidnapped at 17 and testifying for UNICEF, thus denounces a stigmatization of divorced people, treated as “second class citizens[4] Aiperi Alymbekova, I never said “YES”, The story of Aisuluu, a survivor of bride kidnapping, UNICEF, 26/11/2019, https://www.un”. Domestic violence and femicide are punishable under the law, but tackling the tradition of abducting women remains difficult. Data available in the country[5]UN Women Europe and Central Asia, « UN statement on bride kidnapping and child marriage », 31/05/2018, .org/en/news/stories/2018/05/un-statement-on-bride-kidnapping-and-childmarriage indicates that 13.8% of women under the age of 24 are forced into marriage. Many of these women are minors when abducted and forcibly married. Journalist Iris Oppelaar[6]Iris Oppelaar, « Wildness. About Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan », Voices on Central Asia, 24/06/2019, highlights the stories of three women – Makhabat, Ijamal and Madina – the youngest of whom fled when she was pregnant, at the age of barely 14, after having been kidnapped and abused. However, laws do exist: what about their effectiveness? 

A facade of a legislative and judicial framework 

While this practice has been illegal since 1994 in Kyrgyzstan, it remains socially accepted and legal sanctions are rare. According to data from the Women Support Center[7]Un Women, “New law in Kyrgyzstan toughens penalties for bride kidnapping”, … Continue reading, a NGO that aims to eliminate sexual and gender-based violence, at least 11,800 kidnapping marriages are recorded there each year. Only one in 1,500 cases leads to legal proceedings[8]Ibid.. 

One of the main obstacles remains the ineffectiveness of the law in this matter. Steps have been taken to combat this scourge, however. On December 20, 2012, the Parliament of Kyrgyzstan approved a law toughening the penalty for this still widespread custom. Article 155 of the Criminal Code was amended on January 26, 2013. From now on, anyone found guilty of kidnapping a woman and forcing her to marry them faces up to ten years in prison. Thus, article 36 of the Constitution prohibits any marriage without the consent of the persons concerned. However, care must be taken to distinguish between text and practice. Although the country has signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (or Human Rights), the Convention on the Rights of the Child, years of mobilization were necessary to anchor these rights in domestic laws, and even so they are not always respected. However, marriage by kidnapping corresponds to the criteria set by the UN in its definition of trafficking in human beings[9]The UN defines trafficking in human beings as “the recruitment, transport, transfer, harboring or reception of persons, through the threat of use or the use of force … Continue reading. In light of the recent nature of the tradition of forced marriages and the legislative advances framing these practices, it is to be hoped that these measures will be followed by political will in order to enforce them. As long as this custom is protected by the seal of cultural tradition, it will be untouchable, even if it corresponds to the international definition of trafficking in human beings. 

The “custom” of marriage by kidnapping: a practice that is more normative and legitimizing than ancestral  

The role of families, especially women, is crucial in perpetuating this practice. Aisuluu’s testimony for UNICEF thus reveals the “complicit[10]Aiperi AlymbekovaOp. cit” attitude of her parents who assured her kidnapping and her forced marriage. These mothers and grandmothers who were also abducted before now occupy an active position. The generational difference doubles the authority drawn from the tradition of an authority resulting from age. Here, the men take care of the kidnapping while the women ensure the persuasion. This sexual division of labor as an established normative system sends everyone back to their task. This then appears as natural, obvious. In short, the repetition of the same acts from one generation to the next creates typical internalized behaviors, which therefore naturalize and legitimize the practice. 

According to interviews conducted by the organization Eurasianet[11]Erin Hofmann, Guangqing Chi, « Perspectives | Bride kidnapping haunts rural Kyrgyzstan, causing young women to flee », Eurasianet, 08/06/2021, … Continue reading, many Kyrgyz people, especially the older generations, consider the kidnapping of the bride to be a harmless tradition. A 60-year-old woman explains that “it is a very old custom[12]Ibid” and that “even I was married this way, and I am happy with my family life. My husband never beat me, and everything went well[13]Ibid”. People under the age of 50 are more likely to oppose the practice, especially when the two people do not know each other. There is also the idea that such events today are staged. However, Kyrgyz women’s rights groups believe the line between “bogus” kidnappings and “real” kidnappings is blurred. They say a woman can’t really consent to a kidnapping if she knows that in the end her decision doesn’t matter and that no matter what, her boyfriend can override her wishes. 

Finally, it is necessary to deconstruct the idea of ​​ancient tradition”. Tradition is often understood to mean a practice inherited from the past and then repeated from generation to generation. From then on, it is attributed to an ancestral origin which makes it difficult to contest. However, for historian Eric Hobsbawm, this characteristic is not always true. In his book The Invention of Tradition[14]Eric Hobsbawm, Terence Ranger, L’invention de la tradition, Éditions Amsterdam 1983, he highlights the weak anchoring in time of certain national or popular traditions. Thus, one can think that the tradition contains an element of illusion maintained for normative purposes. While the idea of ​​seniority is often used to justify this practice, some researchers[15]BBC News, « Kyrgyzstan: Fury over death of ‘bride kidnapping’ victim », 08/04/2021, say it has spread over the past decades. Other studies[16]Russ Kleinbach, Lilly Salimjanova, « Kyz ala kachuu and adat: non-consensual bride kidnapping and tradition in Kyrgyzstan », Central Asian Survey, 10/09/2007, … Continue reading have shown the absence of any trace of this large-scale tradition before the 20th century, without denying its existence. In short, the traditional argument is weak since the practice is not as old as one might think. 

It is therefore necessary to question another factor that may explain this practice: the economic motive. While a wedding ceremony requires significant resources, forced marriage is the cheapest and fastest way for less fortunate men to get married. Far from being an ancestral custom, it seems more realistic to question rather recent social, economic, cultural and political roots. In short, this is an illusion that seems to be increasingly rejected by new generations. 

The challenges of the new generations: a promising future for the rights of Kyrgyz women? 

While practices perceived as old traditions often take time to evolve, the wishes of new generations must be taken into account. Several voices are being raised in these countries against kidnapping and forced marriage, especially among young people. The role of civil society is undeniable, mainly supported by UN Women present on site. As for the recent legislative changes, they are encouraging. It is now a question of whether feminist protests will have a real resonance in the political scene and in societies more broadly. 

The wave of protests that unfolded in Bishkek in April 2021 is indicative of the paradoxical advances. The practice of kidnapping women provokes massive reactions. After 27-year-old Aizada Kanatbekova was kidnapped and left for dead in a vehicle, more than five hundred people gathered outside the Interior Ministry shouting “стыдно” (shameful in Russian). President Sadyr Japarov described the murder of this young woman as a “tragedy and sorrow not only for her family, but also for the entire State[17]BBC News, Op. cit”. He added that it should be the “last wife kidnapping in history[18]Ibid”, acknowledging the national and common nature of the case. 

Thus, awareness and education play a driving role in this paradigm shift. Svetlana Dzardanova[19]Wolfgang Kuhlner, « Bride Abduction is Not Cool – Fighting Forced Marriage in Kyrgyzstan », Uzbek Journeys, … Continue reading, a young Kyrgyz woman behind the “Ala kachuu is not cool[20]Translated into: “Catch her and run is not cool”” project, takes a stand against this custom by organizing expert round tables, awareness-raising workshops in schools and by producing and distributing brochures explaining that anyone witnessing a kidnapping directly or indirectly has the right to report it. By basing her action on education and awareness, Svetlana hopes to continue and diversify her project in order to offer other solutions to this societal problem. 


The practice of kidnapping and forced marriage, although prohibited, remains widespread in Central Asia, and more particularly in Kyrgyzstan. It is more common in the Kyrgyz countryside that is more affected by poverty and unemployment. More than an ingrained “tradition”, it is a legitimizing tool granting men control over the women of the country. It is therefore clear that there are flows of young women taking refuge in capitals and large cities, where mentalities are gradually changing. As for the notable legislative advances, they risk being only a facade as long as this practice remains socially tolerated. Education, awareness, political will and sanctions, therefore essential, must be concomitant to allow real change. It is also imperative to deconstruct the idea of “​​tradition”. It is in fact a practice of violations of women’s rights, which can stop as it started. 


Aiperi Alymbekova, “I never said “YES”, The story of Aisuluu, a survivor of bride kidnapping”, UNICEF, 26/11/2019, 

Alena Aminova, « Uzbekistan: No Love Lost in Karakalpak Bride Thefts », Institute for War & Peace Reporting, 21/02/2005, 

BBC News, « Kyrgyzstan: Fury over death of ‘bride kidnapping’ victim », 08/04/2021, 

Charles M. Becker, Bakhrom Mirkasimov, Susan Steiner, « Birth Outcomes », Springer Link, 02/08/2017, 

Conway, « Bride Abductions in Kazakhstan and Human Trafficking Discourse: Tradition vs Moral Acuity », The Ohio State University, 05/03/2018, 

Cynthia Werner, « Bride Abduction in Post-Soviet Central Asia: Marking a Shift Towards Patriarchy through Local Discourses of Shame and Tradition », Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 2009, p. 314-331 

Eric Hobsbawm, Terence Ranger, The invention of Tradition, Éditions Amsterdam, 1983 

Erin Hofmann, Guangqing Chi, « Perspectives | Bride kidnapping haunts rural Kyrgyzstan, causing young women to flee », Eurasianet, 08/06/2021, 

Human Rights Watch, “Reconciled to Violence, State Failure to Stop Domestic Abuse and Abduction of Women in Kyrgyzstan”, 09/2006 

Iris Oppelaar, « Wildness. About Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan », Voices on Central Asia, 24/06/2019, 

Pauline Jones Luong, The Transformation of Central Asia : States and Societies from Soviet Rule to Independence, Cornell University Press, 2004, p.62 

Russ Kleinbach, Lilly Salimjanova, « Kyz ala kachuu and adat: non-consensual bride kidnapping and tradition in Kyrgyzstan », Central Asian Survey, 10/09/2007, 

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 

UN Women, « Defining other forms of forced marriage: bride kidnapping », UN Women Virtual Knowledge Centre to End Violence against Women and Girls, 28/01/2011, 

United Nations Women, “New law in Kyrgyzstan toughens penalties for bride kidnapping”, 06/02/2013, 

 United Nations Women Europe and Central Asia, « UN statement on bride kidnapping and child marriage », 31/05/2018, 

Wolfgang Kuhlner, « Bride Abduction is Not Cool – Fighting Forced Marriage in Kyrgyzstan », Uzbek Journeys, 19/10/2018, 

To quote this article: Kenza Rharmaoui, Le mariage par enlèvement au Kirghizistan: une pratique à l’épreuve du temps”, 01.10.2021, Gender in Geopolitics Institute.

The views expressed in this paper are solely those of the author. 


1 UN Women, « Defining other forms of forced marriage: bride kidnapping », UN Women Virtual Knowledge Centre to End Violence against Women and Girls, 28/01/2011,
2 Pauline Jones Luong, The Transformation of Central Asia : States and Societies from Soviet Rule to Independence, Cornell University Press, 2004, p. 62
3 Charles M. Becker, Bakhrom Mirkasimov, Susan Steiner, « Birth Outcomes », Springer Link, 02/08/2017,
4  Aiperi Alymbekova, I never said “YES”, The story of Aisuluu, a survivor of bride kidnapping, UNICEF, 26/11/2019, https://www.un
5 UN Women Europe and Central Asia, « UN statement on bride kidnapping and child marriage », 31/05/2018, .org/en/news/stories/2018/05/un-statement-on-bride-kidnapping-and-childmarriage
6 Iris Oppelaar, « Wildness. About Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan », Voices on Central Asia, 24/06/2019,
7 Un Women, “New law in Kyrgyzstan toughens penalties for bride kidnapping”, 06/02/2013,
8 Ibid.
9 The UN defines trafficking in human beings as “the recruitment, transport, transferharboring or reception of personsthrough the threat of use or the use of force or other forms of coercion, by kidnapping, frauddeception, abuse of authority or of a situation of vulnerability, or by offering or accepting payments or advantages to obtain the consent of a person having authority over another, to operating purposes. Exploitation includes, as a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or organ removal.”  Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime website,
10 Aiperi AlymbekovaOp. cit
11 Erin Hofmann, Guangqing Chi, « Perspectives | Bride kidnapping haunts rural Kyrgyzstancausing young women to flee », Eurasianet, 08/06/2021,
12 Ibid
13 Ibid
14 Eric Hobsbawm, Terence Ranger, L’invention de la tradition, Éditions Amsterdam 1983
15 BBC News, « Kyrgyzstan: Fury over death of ‘bride kidnapping’ victim », 08/04/2021,
16 Russ Kleinbach, Lilly Salimjanova, « Kyz ala kachuu and adat: non-consensual bride kidnapping and tradition in Kyrgyzstan », Central Asian Survey, 10/09/2007,
17 BBC News, Op. cit
18 Ibid
19 Wolfgang Kuhlner, « Bride Abduction is Not Cool – Fighting Forced Marriage in Kyrgyzstan », Uzbek Journeys, 19/10/2018,
20 Translated into: “Catch her and run is not cool”