BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — In 1997, 22-year-old Altynai was walking home from a university when a stranger asked her for help unloading his car.
As she approached, a group of men forced her inside the vehicle. She struggled and cried out. When the car pulled away, she was told that she was being taken to meet her husband-to-be - a man she did not know and had never met.
“I had to accept my fate and marry him,” said Altynai, now 36, who asked that her real name not be used in order to protect her son. “Such is the tradition in our culture.”
“In the beginning everything was good - except that I did not love my husband,” she said. “But several years later, my life became unbearable because my husband would beat me often, even in front of others. It didn’t stop even when we had a child.”
Human rights groups say at least 15,000 women and girls are kidnapped for marriage in Kyrgyzstan each year.
The practice is a hotly debated topic, with society split between those who respect the practice as an ancient Kyrgyz tradition and those who condemn it as an act of criminal brutality.
Altynai eventually divorced her husband, and now supports herself and her 12-year-old son working at a market in the capital of Bishkek. Making ends meet is tough, and she missed out getting her degree and fulfilling her dream of becoming a teacher.
But Altynai’s story has a happier ending than some. About 10 women commit suicide each year as a result of such forced marriages.
This month, the Kyrgyz Ombudsman’s Office, which investigates human rights offenses, has been working to combat the practice with an awareness campaign in the media and schools throughout the country.
“We live in the 21st century, in a century of progress,” said director Tursunbek Akun. “It is unacceptable that bride kidnapping is still practiced in our country.”
According to Mr. Akun, the traditional roots of the practice were very different from today’s kidnappings.
“Centuries ago, it was practiced by couples who were either from different classes or from different tribes, and whose families were against their marriage,” said the ombudsman, who is appointed by parliament.
“It was practiced with mutual agreement of [both young people], and did not include any elements of violence. Today, what we call a bride-kidnapping is the abduction of a human being.”
Even though the practice is illegal, there are almost no cases of kidnapped brides or their families in the courts. This is largely to do with the stigma: Once a woman has been kidnapped, her honor is seen to have been compromised, bringing shame on her family if she refuses to marry her kidnapper.
Bubusara Ryskulova is the director of the Sezim crisis center in Bishkek, which provides psychological support for women who have been the victims of domestic violence.
“When a ‘bride’ is kidnapped, men bring her to a kidnapper’s house,” Ms. Ryskulova said. “There, women who are relatives of a ‘groom-to-be’ put severe psychological pressure on the kidnapped woman, forcing her to wear a white scarf [a symbol that she will marry her kidnapper]. They may ask her, beg her to stay. In case that doesn’t work, the elderly women will threaten her with [a] curse.”
Human rights groups have long criticized the government for doing little to address the issue. But the ombudsman’s efforts to lobby the government may be seeing results. Parliamentary deputy Asiya Sasykbaeva said a committee is drafting legislation that would ban religious marriages without official marriage documents.
Had such a law been in place when Altynai was kidnapped, things could have been very different. As it stands, she has no legal right to alimony or child support from her ex-husband because the marriage was not officially registered.
Altynai hopes the new law will protect other women from going through what she has suffered.
“I really wish a happy life to all women,” she said. “No one must be forced to enter marriage.”