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Sexual harassment in Kyrgyzstan: Impunity and Reprehension of Victims (infographics)

In Kyrgyzstan, every fourth woman experiences work harassment.


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Nazgul (not her real name) was a senior student when she was undertaking internship at a state institution of Kyrgyzstan. The administration liked the diligent girl and offered her a job after internship.

I sat in the chair and buried my face in my hands. My fingers were trembling, I didn’t feel my legs. My temples were beating with a thought “it’s your fault!”

Once, when there was no one in the reception room but her, her chief called her to his office. Nazgul came in as she thought he would give her a task, but the man behind the desk was in no haste to do it, but was writing something. She approached the desk, the man looked at her and took her by her hand instead of handing over some documents.

“I knew I had to escape and leave. However, I had in my mind ‘obey the elders’ and ‘respect the elders’. I knew that man was doing wrong things, but I just couldn’t move, my feet stuck to the floor. The old man was sitting there and staring at me, stroking my hand, then he tapped me on my knee as if saying, sit on my laps. I couldn’t move and my body was shivering,” the girl said.

 

Nazgul was lucky then, someone entered the reception room, the man jerked back his hand and she managed to leave the office. In a couple of days, she resigned saying she had to take examinations.

In Kyrgyzstan, every fourth woman experiencing harassment has to quit job. 

In November 2019, the Association of Women Judges with the support of international organisations conducted a survey of the scope of sexual harassment of women and girls at workplace.

During the survey, 877 unmarried women and girls in the age of20-38 years old were surveyed anonymously in the four towns of Kyrgyzstan: Bishkek, Osh, Kara Balta and Tokmok.

*According to the National Statistical Committee, in 2019 there were more than one million women in this age group. Sample size calculators show that the number of respondents can be 385 persons for this group given the 5% standard error.

Results of the survey showed that the majority of harassment cases happen in state institutions. According to the surveyed women, it happens because of impunity of officials and politicians, as well as their personal contacts in the police. 

“In the lift, an unknown employee of the Zhogorku Kenesh wanted to hug me by force. When he learned I was a deputy and his action would be big with consequences, he said he thought I was an ordinary staff of the White House. And his women colleagues tried to turn it into a joke. This is all you have to know about work harassment”.

This case happened to the people’s deputy, Elvira Surabaldieva, last year and it demonstrates well one of the survey findings – the less power and authority women have, the more often they experience harassment.

According to the deputy, she was stigmatised after she told about this case. Some blamed her for drawing attention and hype, some wondered why she didn’t fire that man.

“First of all, there are no articles I could refer to [upon his dismissal]. Even if I dismissed him,  they would think I used my deputy’s power without evidence [to dismiss him],” Surabaldieva said.

In early October this year, a female employee of Kyrgyz Methodical Expedition of Economic-Geological Studies applied to the metallurgy trade union. She blamed director Dzhanybek Duisheev for repeated harassment. According to her, the man promised to keep her part-time job if she agreed to have sexual relationship with him. The case was registered with the Unified Register of Crimes and Offences and pre-trial procedure was initiated under article “Sexual abuse” of the Criminal Code of the Kyrgyz Republic.

In the end of November, social media posted an anonymous story about Colonel-General Abdygul Chotbaev, veteran of Afghan war, ex-commander of the National Guard of the Kyrgyz Republic, who harassed a female employee of Megacom, where he worked.

 And on December 5 this year, there was a report that an investigating officer of the Tokmak Department of Interior Affairs harassed a 17-year-old female student assistant. According to Kaktus.media, when the girl entered his office, the man closed the door, clapped handcuffs on her and started harassing her. A criminal case was initiated, and one week later the investigating officer was reported to have resigned.

Very often, the majority of women blame themselves for harassment and it shows strong gender stereotypes, critical attitude of women towards themselves, public pressure and reprehension of victims of harassment, as emphasised by experts in survey findings.

“What will people say?”  

A few years have passed, but Nazgul still wonders why she couldn’t jerk her hand back. And why she didn’t tell about it to anyone. Her case is not unique, in Kyrgyzstan every fifth woman (23%) experiencing harassment never goes to anyone for help. 

Deliberate silencing of the problem by women experiencing harassment is one of the factors contributing to the increasing number of sexual harassment cases, as reported in the survey. Another factor is that those who experienced sexual harassment often don’t know where to go for help without fear of losing their reputation and avoiding reprehension of the wider public.

 

The survey revealed that women don’t go to the police at all. It happens for a few reasons. 

  1. Organisations often sidestep the facts of harassment and have the victim and abuser reach a friendly settlement and don’t submit the case to the police.
  2. There’s distrust of the police and unfriendly attitude to the victims of harassment.
  3. There’s no political will: the state doesn’t signal that harassment is a crime. There is no criminal penalty even for severe forms of sexual harassment (but proved rape). 

What is harassment?

 

Laws of the Kyrgyz Republic don’t give a clear definition of “harassment”. Article 163 of the Criminal Code “Sexual abuse” reads as follows:

Using force to have sexual contact, sodomy, lesbian act or other sexual actions with a person by means of intimidation, or using material or other dependence of the victim.

However, many actions that are defined as harassment are not covered by this article. For example, harassment is not only a physical action, but inappropriate comments about someone’s body or appearance. This is not covered in laws.

Some cannot tell the difference between flirtation and harassment and say we will somehow accidentally sweep up well-meaning compliments as a result of battling harassment. At first sight, there’s something in common between flirting and harassment, which is the interest. But this is formal because flirting and harassment are radically different concepts.

Flirting is a kind of courtship that implies some possibility or expectation of sexual relations, and may be done just to know if the person is ready for such relations.

Harassment is a behaviour that violates your sexual integrity. It is based on the idea that one person has a right to another person’s time, attention or body.

In Kyrgyzstan, the topic of harassment is not a taboo – politicians make jokes about “male instincts” and “appetencies”, which are awaken by women.

Victims of harassment are reprehended by the public, while the perpetrators may not be affected by public opinion. Gender expert Gulsara Alieva noted that a person experiencing sexual harassment feels himself dependent, rightless and doesn’t believe they can take action against harassment.

Sexual harassment is taken by women as an insult, and 70% of female respondents said this is violence against women. Alieva agrees with this statement and defines harassment as gender-based violence, which becomes possible due to stereotypes in the society and culture of unequal treatment at a workplace.

 “I find it offensive to see and hear that our politicians say that everything is fine and there can be no workplace harassment, that no one dares to harass,” Nazgul said.  

What’s next?

To decrease the scope of harassment, the national laws should clearly define sexual harassment and provide for effective measures of regulation, as specified in the recommendations to the survey.

According to the decree of the government of the Kyrgyz Republic on achieving gender equality,  a working group was created to develop draft amendments to bills, particularly, to the Criminal Code, Code of Offences, law “On state guarantees of equal rights and equal opportunities for men and women,” and other laws and regulations.

According to Elvira Surabaldieva, the draft law on harassment will be soon submitted to public discussion and then to the parliament. 

Full survey will be published on the website of the Kyrgyz Association of Women Judges.

Dataset is available here >>

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