“I could not stand any more beatings and humiliation by my husband and will never go back to him,” said Gulipa Kadirkulova, a former housewife from a suburb in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. So afraid was Gulipa that she refused to come out of the shelter to speak to IRIN.
The Sezim shelter has heavy window grates and an armoured door to protect its occupants. Only such measures and psychological support provided by the Sezim have helped Gulipa to feel less afraid, one month after her arrival.
"Only then could I sleep without being afraid of my husband pulling me out of the bed and dragging me by my hair in the middle of the night and beating me ferociously,” she said.
According to the Kyrgyz Association of Crisis Centres, about 5,000 women, mostly between 16 and 25, turn to the four shelters in the country annually. Neither police nor hospitals keeps statistics about victims of domestic violence. Specialists, however, say the real figures are tens if not hundred times that, with many abused women preferring to stay silent.
For a married woman to leave her husband and home is considered shameful and a disgrace in traditional Kyrgyz society, particularly in rural areas.
In Central Asia, women are generally brought up to be obedient and bear any humiliation. "That does not allow any women to rely on her relatives, who take a woman’s suffering as something normal according to old traditions," Gulipa said.
The Sezim shelter is the only one in Bishkek – with a population of about one million – and can take only 10 people at a time. Besides Sezim, there are only three similar centres throughout the country of 5.2 million inhabitants.
Specialists cite old traditions as one of the major reasons for domestic violence. In Kyrgyzstan, there is a proverb: “One who has a sheep eats meat; one who has a husband eats lash.” Some men are not even ashamed of what they do to their wives. Every week, Damir Rustamov, an entrepreneur, hits his wife just “for preventative purposes”.
International Women's Day
Jyldyz Sulaimanova, head of family rights at the Kyrgyz Ombudsman’s office, said women's lack of awareness of their rights, particularly in remote rural areas, was another contributing factor. "They do not know that they can report beatings by their husbands to the police," she said.
Anara Tabyshalieva, a gender specialist, thinks unemployment, increasing alcoholism and drug addiction among men are exacerbating the problem.
Unemployed drunk husbands
"When husbands are unemployed they become aggressive and when on top of that they are drunk they vent their anger at their wives," Aidai, 35, a biology teacher in the southern city of Osh, told IRIN.
"Unfortunately, it is a pretty common thing. I myself experienced it several times. Many of the women I know are beaten by their husbands," she said.
Domestic violence is common at all levels of Kyrgyz society, Natalia Pavlova, a consultant with Sezim, said. "Even wives of high-ranking officials turn to the centre. Suffering from family violence is a normal condition of many Kyrgyz women’s lives,” she added.
Avtandil Azimkanov, the Kyrgyz Ombudsman’s counsellor, blamed family violence on a lack of empowerment of women and a lack of will by women to stand up for their rights.
Lack of legal knowledge among the police is another problem. In 2003, Kyrgyzstan adopted a law on protection against domestic violence, but it has yet to be implemented. According to the Association of Crisis Centres, only 15 percent of people are aware of the law.
When Akjamal Musayeva wanted to get divorced from her husband, his reaction was fierce. She was hospitalised with concussion and bruises all over her body. But a district police officer convinced her not to file a complaint, saying it would be impossible to bring a serious charge.
According to a recent survey by Chance, a women's crisis centre, among officials of law-enforcement authorities, 38 percent of male officers and 17 percent of female staff did not consider family humiliation, insults or rudeness as violence.
“Policemen are serious about family violence only in cases of heavy injury or death of a woman,” said Pavlova.