Interview

Kyrgyz Debate Female Travel Ban

Controversial scheme would restrict foreign travel for young women, instead of trying to curb violence perpetrated by their countrymen.

Rights activists in Kyrgyzstan are campaigning against a parliamentary proposal to bar women under the age of 23 from travelling abroad without their parents’ consent. 

In a country where hundreds of thousands of migrant workers go to Russia and other states every year, supporters of the restrictions say they just want to protect vulnerable young women from the risk of abuse. Irgal Kadyralieva, the parliamentarian who drafted the proposal, told legislators on March 4 that in some cases, the right to free movement had to be outweighed by other considerations.

The Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ is campaigning against a move its members see as unconstitutional and discriminatory on both sex and age grounds. For opponents of the plan, it seems perverse to impose restrictions on young women on the grounds that they are potential victims, not perpetrators of crimes.

Aida Kasymalieva of the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL told IWPR about the background to this unusual proposal. She has reported on cases where female Kyrgyz migrant workers have been attacked by their male counterparts who accuse them of “loose behaviour”. Last year she broke the story of one such assault, on a woman called Sapargul, which was filmed and posted on the internet. (See Videoed Assaults Cause Outrage in Kyrgyzstan.)

Aida Kasymalieva: It was these problems… that drew attention to the issue. Irgal Kadyralieva, who drafted the resolution, is calling it the “Sapargul project”.

IWPR: Supporters say that it seeks to protect women, while those who are against it believe it’s a violation of women’s rights. What’s your view?

Kasymalieva: When I was researching this topic in Moscow, many members of the migrant community told me that parents shouldn’t let their daughters go abroad to work. Surprisingly few of them talked about tackling the root causes rather than imposing a ban. The way the issue was discussed showed that most of the blame was placed on the victims, the girls.

I’ve talked to Sapargul, and she’s against this scheme. I am totally against it myself. It doesn’t in any way address the problems facing female migrants. It doesn’t improve conditions for them there [abroad], nor does it help the public understand why this [pattern of assaults] happens – why you can’t go out and assault or rape someone just because she’s seeing a man from a different ethnic background.

This initiative has been designed not to eradicate the problem, but as a PR exercise to satisfy the pseudo-patriotic rhetoric that now exists in Kyrgyzstan.

IWPR: What are the negative implications?

Kasymalieva: This is a mirror reflection of social attitudes to women. The very fact it’s been possible to make such a proposal at the parliamentary level effectively legitimises these attitudes.

It will strengthen xenophobic feelings… it will effectively confirm that these “patriots” are right, that the girls are the guilty party and should “stay home”.

What’s more, if it’s approved it will create more opportunities for corruption, since it includes exemptions for young women going to study abroad… There’s tremendous room for manoeuvre, for bureaucratic paperwork, and hence for bribe-taking.

IWPR: Why was 23 chosen as the age-limit for the travel ban?

Kasymalieva: That’s absolutely unclear. Has any research been done? The figure has been plucked out of thin air.

IWPR: Why has it gone forward as a resolution rather than a law – is that just procedural?

Kasymalieva: A resolution doesn’t need to be signed by the president, but it isn’t mandatory.

Saule Mukhametrakhimova is IWPR Central Asia editor in London.

If you would like to comment or ask a question about this story, please contact our Central Asia editorial team atfeedback.ca@iwpr.net.


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