Skip to main content

The Rise of Non-Consensual Bride Kidnapping in Kazakhstan: Developing a Culturally-Informed and Gender-Sensitive Response

The rise of non-consensual bride kidnapping is an increasing problem in the southern regions of Kazakhstan. Although local Kazakhs regard consensual kidnapping as a Kazakh tradition, very few Kazakhs support the practice of kidnapping a woman against her will. Paradoxically, young women who are kidnapped against their will stay in these marriages to avoid the shame and stigma of returning home. Although non-consensual bride kidnapping can be considered an act of violence against women, the international development community has yet to respond to this issue. This report provides policy recommendations for understanding and responding to this problem in a culturally-informed and gender-sensitive manner.

Understanding Bride Kidnapping

  • Kazakh Women and the Post-Soviet Transition. For Kazakh women, the post-Soviet "transition" has reversed a number of positive developments that emerged in the Soviet era. Women who once benefitted from policies that guaranteed education, employment, daycare, and medical care are now faced with a situation where unemployment is rampant, daycare is nonexistent, and higher education and health care are no longer affordable. Furthermore, Marxist ideals that promoted gender equality are being replaced with new nationalist ideals that emphasize more "traditional" gender roles.
  • Non-Consensual versus Consensual Bride Kidnapping. In the southern regions of Kazakhstan, the impact of the post-Soviet transition is best exemplified by the rise of non-consensual bride kidnapping. Bride kidnapping is one of several paths to marriage, most of which now involve the consent of both the bride and the groom. Bride kidnapping has a long history in Kazakhstan, and the majority of kidnappings involve the bride's implicit or explicit consent. In a typical case, the bride verbally consents to marriage one day and then her boyfriend later surprises her by "kidnapping" her on an unplanned date. In a slightly different version, the groom may kidnap a girl whom he feels has implicitly consented to marriage with him, by responding positively to his attention or by going on a number of dates with him. In the case of non-consensual bride kidnapping, a woman is physically kidnapped by a man she hardly knows or by a man she is clearly not interested in. With the help of friends, the kidnapper takes the girl to his parent's house, where the girl is expected to "consent" to the marriage by taking the symbolic marriage scarf and by writing a letter home to her parents. It is difficult for a kidnapped bride to get out of the marriage after she has been taken to the young man's house. Both families pressure her to stay in the marriage by reminding her that her reputation will be ruined and her entire family will be shamed if she returns home. Many of the kidnapped brides are college-educated women with career aspirations. Their life plans are changed irrevocably when they are kidnapped by a family that may not support their decision to continue their education and career.
  • Motives for Bride Kidnapping. In the past and in the present, the motives for kidnapping and the level of female consent vary greatly from case to case. In the past, brides were typically kidnapped when the boy's family was too poor to pay the bridewealth and/or the girl's father did not consent to the marriage. Today, it is more common for a bride to be kidnapped to speed up the process of getting married and/or to reduce the costs. Kidnap marriages are less expensive and less complicated than the most common alternative--an arranged marriage. In many cases, a bride is kidnapped because the groom is worried that another suitor will marry his chosen bride first. In a few cases, a bride is kidnapped because she is already pregnant with the groom's child. In the case of non-consensual bride kidnapping, most brides are kidnapped because the groom knows that the girl would not otherwise agree to the marriage.
  • Kidnapping Trends Over Time. The nature of bride kidnapping has adapted and transformed over time. Kidnap marriages, as well as arranged marriages, became illegal shortly after the Soviet state incorporated Central Asia in the early 1920s. However, in contrast to arranged marriages, which experienced a large decline in the Soviet period, kidnap marriages persisted and increased in the Soviet period. By the 1970s, the majority of kidnap marriages could be described as elopements that were staged as kidnappings. This trend can be explained by considering the inherent conflict between Soviet laws that banned forced marriages and Kazakh values that discouraged girls from publicly pursuing their own marriage partner. In the southern regions of Kazakhstan, the majority of marriages are formed by bride kidnapping. As nationalism and independence has taken its hold in Kazakhstan, the percent of kidnapping cases with minimal consent has increased from 0% to 18% from the 1970s to the 1990s.
  • Explanations for the Post-Soviet Rise of Non-Consensual Bride Kidnapping. The rise of non-consensual bride kidnapping relates to the changing nature of state-society relations in the late Soviet and post-Soviet periods. In particular, this trend is attributed to the transition from a socialist state--where women's rights were protected and economic security was provided--to a post-socialist state--where the following three factors are present: (1) Popular support for and state promotion of Kazakh nationalism has encouraged the restoration of "traditional" gender roles. (2) An increasing perception that the legal system is corrupt has ensured that young men are confident that they can get away with this crime. (3) Many young men have less economic stability to offer prospective marriage partners.

    The international development community should consider more seriously the issue of non-consensual bride kidnapping. The rise of non-consensual bride kidnapping is likely to cause a host of other social problems, which might include domestic abuse, depression, drug abuse, and high divorce rates. All of these problems hinder economic and social development in the region.

    Policy Recommendations

    The following steps can be taken to develop policies that are both culturally-informed and gender-sensitive:

  • Understand the difference between consensual and non-consensual bride kidnapping. Consensual bride kidnapping has long-term roots in Kazakh culture, and most Kazakhs perceive this to be a harmless and fun tradition. Non-consensual bride kidnapping also has connections to the pre-Soviet past, but due to the impact of Soviet gender policies, the majority of Kazakhs do not view it favorably. Due to a high number of kidnapping cases with implicit consent, it is not easy to draw a line between consensual and non-consensual bride kidnapping. What one person may describe as a consensual kidnapping, another person may describe as a non-consensual kidnapping.
  • Encourage changes in the legal process. First, the legal system could be persuaded to do more to discourage this problem. Right now, most young women do not feel the local court system would help them. At the same time, young men feel confident that they can get away with this crime. The international community could support local NGO outreach programs that pressure local law enforcement officials and judges to take this crime more seriously.
  • Develop support groups and crisis centers. Kazakh women who choose to return home are not always supported by family members and often experience extreme emotional distress. Local NGOs could establish local crises centers, akin to rape crisis centers, to aid victims of kidnapping who choose to return home.
  • Improve economic conditions at the local level. Young men are more likely to kidnap women against their will if they feel insecure about their own economic situation. For this reason, it is crucial that the international community and Kazakhstan government take steps to improve the employment opportunities of young men.
  • Consider gender implications of Kazakh nationalism. Non-consensual kidnapping has become more acceptable in a social environment where Kazakh nationalism is stressed more than gender equality. The government of Kazakhstan should be pressured to consider the gender implications of new national histories and new national heroes.
  • Tagged

    Related Program

    Kennan Institute

    The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more