Face to face with harassment and sexism in Kyrgyzstan

November 28, 2022


“I was dashing to a meeting and hopped on a bus full of people. Just a few minutes later, I sensed someone’s hand on my body. It was a man standing behind me. I began to shout to attract the attention of other passengers, but nobody around me said anything."

This is one of the many stories that women have shared with Nazira Aytbekova, a blogger from Kyrgyzstan. Aytbekova publishes anonymous letters sent to her Instagram Direct by dozens of women claiming to have been sexually harassed and raped.

“Initially, I was publishing my correspondence with men who messaged me with obscene proposals. On social media, I voiced my position that it is unacceptable, and women found their stories resonating with mine. I started to receive private stories from others, not expecting that I would open Pandora's box. I still continue to receive lots of messages daily, women talking about harassment in public transport, in the workplace and at the university, from stranger colleagues, teachers and close relatives. Many of them had never shared experiences of such abuse before with anyone and, afraid of revenge, asked her to share their stories anonymously.

Harassment in Kyrgyzstan and its impunity

Harassment is any inappropriate and unwanted behavior that can reasonably be expected or perceived as an insult or humiliation to another person. Harassment may take the form of words, gestures or actions which tend to annoy, alarm, abuse, demean, intimidate, humiliate or embarrass another person or which create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. Harassment normally implies a series of incidents, but even single encounters count. This can happen anywhere, in both physical spaces and the digital realm.

According to a study by the Kyrgyz Association of Women Judges (2019), every fourth woman in the Kyrgyz Republic has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. 80 percent of harassment cases occur in public institutions, and 70 percent of the victims are 20- to 38-year-old women, unmarried, and holding the position of employees.

Janna Araeva, feminist and media expert says, “Violence in Kyrgyzstan is systemic. Misogyny (women hating) contributes to the fact that laws to protect women and girls are not being discussed or promoted by policymakers. Women in leadership positions rarely have the voice and power to influence the agenda. Bringing women leaders together could bring great changes, but the very low representation of women in Parliament (only 17 out of 86) does not allow to composite the critical mass to oppose.”

There are three main challenges to women/ men receiving justice for harassment against them:

1)    No law protects victims of harassment;

2)    Law enforcers do not support those who have sought their assistance; and

3)    Distorted social norms that consider harassment a way of courting a woman or a man.


No laws or protection in the first place

The law-enforcement agencies in Kyrgyzstan are not equipped with the legal provisions to prosecute cases of harassment. Actions such as touching, or gazing are not considered as harassment. Sexist jokes or unnecessary physical contact with the will to sexual actions are not considered crimes. For example, the actions of a boss who persistently writes and makes obscene proposals, but at the same time doesn’t use threats or coercion to use dependence (financial or employment) cannot be qualified as criminal.

“Among the women who shared their stories with me were those who sought help from the police and filed complaints, but law enforcers ridicule such appeals and did not take them seriously. It seems to me women face indifference that keeps them from asking for legal support. And women are simply afraid, "says Nazira Aytbekova.


The crime is committed, but not prosecuted

In June 2021 journalist Aidai Tokoyeva was attacked on the streets of Bishkek and recorded everything live on her phone. She filed a complaint with the police, but nothing happened. Soon after, the now-activist took a part in a peaceful march addressing sexual harassment.

“The criminal case on this incident was not initiated. They said they would investigate, but… (shakes head). Now, when I walk home at night, I always carry a stick with me. Lately, I think many girls do not feel safe, like me.  Kyrgyzstan has become an unsafe country for women.” In 2021 the Global Women's Safety and Well-being Index , named Kyrgyzstan the most dangerous country in Central Asia for women.


Misplaced blame (or excuses)

Adinay Japaralieva, a human rights activist, believes that a vast majority of the society in the country still blame women and the victims of violence. “Women are criticized when they speak up about harassment cases they experience. Most of the time they say even their families do not support them, let alone the laws. I assisted several women who officially complained, but there is no legislative base to punish a harasser.”  Harassment is perceived as not significant enough to go to the police.

The perpetuation of silence also lies in the  perception that harassment is not  a significant enough problem worth taking to the police, because they know the same men are sitting in the police department  and if they try to raise the issue of harassment, they will become the object of sarcastic ridicule,” continues Adinai.

Is there any solution?

In 2018, MP Elvira Surabaldieva, who survived a harassment incident on the premises of the Parliament building, initiated the development of a bill for legal regulations against sexual harassment and is committed to addressing all forms of harassment in Kyrgyz society. She highlights that investigations into such acts should be carried out within the framework of human rights principles, where the person who experienced harassment is not blamed, but instead the perpetrator is questioned.


Awareness matters

Ignoring harassment and discrimination can lead to breeding negative social norms that make it acceptable for perpetrators to keep committing such behaviors; maintaining silence tactics on harassment only strengthens its acceptance. As a result, harassment survivors experience self-blame, low self-confidence, powerlessness, demoralized feelings and depression. From the human rights point of view, survivors do not enjoy full-bodied life due to harassment’s impact and the personal costs for individuals and organizational costs that link to the country’s economy.

Raising awareness on harassment is a core action toward addressing it. People should be educated on which harmful practices cause discrimination against women and girls.  As part of the Spotlight initiative of the European Union and the United Nations, UNDP is running an awareness campaign aimed to explain the harassment and its implication on the freedoms and rights of people. Since 2019, UNDP, together with development partners, has been supporting the development of legislative measures addressing harassment and raising awareness of the need to counter violence and harassment at the workplace in the Kyrgyz Republic.

“Now people are becoming more aware of harassment because of the information campaigns and constant awareness raising by human rights activists. Victims of harassment speak up, but their voices are still muffled and are not heard because patriarchy still prevails in Kyrgyz society," concludes Adinai Japaralieva.