Meerim was a 21-year-old university student in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, when her admirer, an old classmate from the central province of Naryn, abducted her for marriage.
"My schoolmates suggested having a reunion and we met in a café in Bishkek. We were having a small party with drinks and snacks. Then Nurlan [her then classmate and now her husband] offered to continue the celebrations at his home with kebabs and music,” Meerim said in Bishkek, recalling the experience.
“I agreed, but when we entered his home, his relatives were there. His mother said that I would become her son’s spouse. I was shocked and did not expect such an outcome. I cried, disagreed, tried to escape, but all in vain. All night long his sisters and female relatives tried to convince me. My female schoolmates were on their side too,” she added.
But despite having a boyfriend and future career plans, Meerim surrendered to an age old Kyrgyz tradition.
“I wanted to call my boyfriend to take me away but didn't know what to tell him. I knew he couldn't help. He was far away. I called my parents, but they did not want to get me out of the situation. My grandmother insisted that I should stay with a husband-to-be as otherwise our family would be shamed. I eventually gave in," Meerim said, adding that following the wedding, she had to leave her education and mainly engage in domestic chores as expected in this traditional society.
Such abductions are not unusual in the former Soviet republic, particularly in rural areas, where the majority of Kyrgyzstan’s some 5 million inhabitants live.
According to some estimates, upwards of 30 percent of the country’s married women have been snatched from the street by their husbands in a custom known as "ala kachuu," which translates roughly as "grab and run." In its most benign form, it is a kind of elopement, in which a man whisks away a willing girlfriend. But often it is something more violent.
The custom predates the arrival of Islam in the 12th century and is practiced in varying degrees across Central Asia, but is most prevalent in Kyrgyzstan.
According to some estimates, in the Naryn province alone an estimated 55 percent of all women were abducted against their will and forced into marriage, while only 10 percent of abducted women dared to stand for their rights and leave their abductors.
"Getting married this way means the majority of girls leave educational institutions. Some of them do it voluntarily thinking that they would be supported by the husband and wouldn't need a profession in the future,” Sagynbek Seydaliev, a rights activist from the southwestern Batken province, explained.
“Others are forced to leave education under pressure from their husband or his relatives unwilling to spend money for tuition," the human rights defender added.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) considers bride kidnapping as gender-based violence. “Women's rights are violated by not giving the right to a woman to choose her future husband," Julien Pellaux, a communication and advocacy officer at UNFPA Kyrgyzstan, said, adding that the UN agency was addressing the issue via several project components under way in the former Soviet republic.
"Kyrgyzstan is advanced in law protection, but not in implementing it. The problem is that the mentality [of local people] is not ready. For example, we helped one young girl to cancel her marriage by a court decision in [northeastern] Tiup village. But it had negative social consequences. She became an outcast in the village and had to move to Karakol city. The community was angry that she broke with ‘tradition’," Pellaux added.
Meanwhile, a local survey conducted in the southern Kyrgyz province of Jalal-Abad revealed that in every 10 divorces registered, seven were in families founded through bride kidnapping, the Russian-based Ferghana.ru news site reported on 15 February.
“These divorces impact on the mental state of young women and their future,” Aisuluu Kannazarova, head of the local Healthy Generation NGO, said.