Pop music producer and actress Bayan Yessentayeva may not be the most beloved celebrity in Kazakhstan, but even detractors admire her seemingly effortless glamor and icy determination.
That studied image of invulnerability was rudely shattered earlier this month when reports emerged she had, like many of her countrywomen, became a victim of chilling domestic violence.
Suspecting infidelity, Bakhytbek Yessentayev savagely beat his wife, leaving her with injuries to her skull and stab wounds. The case provoked considerable shock, although not much surprise, given how common the problem is in Kazakhstan.
The scale of the issue was laid out in detail in 2014 by then-regional director for UN Women, Damira Sartbayeva. Domestic violence of one kind or another regularly manifests itself in one out of eight households in Kazakhstan, she said. Police in the country’s largest city, Almaty, say they receive an average 20 reports of household violence every day. Even that figure should be considered incomplete though, since most women are reluctant to tell anybody of their plight for fear of facing more physical aggression.
Every year, around 500 women die as a result of domestic violence, according to UN Women estimates. Yessentayeva’s case sparked a wave of solidarity in social media. A group of young women organized a public gathering in which they painted bruises on their faces as a way of raising awareness about the issue.
Those that work daily with victims were unimpressed. Nadezhda Gladyr, head of the Podrugi women’s shelter, was reluctant to even discuss the matter with EurasiaNet.org, and bristled with anger that such a pressing issue had only gained public attention after an incident involving a celebrity. A huge number of women all over Kazakhstan suffer from routine violence. Some are driven to take their own lives because of systematic abuse, she said.
Gladyr described the sudden gestures of public solidarity like the ones organized through social media as “cynical.”
“I think these young women don’t understand what domestic violence even is,” she said.
Prior to the publicity surrounding Yessentayeva’s case, the issue of domestic violence had received limited public attention. There is even a prevailing attitude of acceptance toward violence in the family. Activists say domestic abuse, which predominantly plays out as violence by men against women, is more common in rural communities, but is frequent in cities too.
Another brutal case that gained much public attention last year was that of Astana schoolteacher Svetlana Saduova. For 21 years, she was married to Kanat Saduov, who spent much of that time drinking heavily and beating her. Through all that, Saduova gave birth to four children. Her decision to finally leave him culminated with Saduov’s most shocking act of violence of all — one that would claim her life.
The details of her plight emerged from the pages of her diary, which were read out during the murder trial. Saduova describes how her husband would follow her when she left the house. At times, he would call to say: “I can see you, I know where you are, I know what you’re doing."
Unable to bear it any longer, Saduova finally sought a divorce and last spring sought refuge in a women’s shelter. Kanat Saduov eventually cornered her in the courtyard of the school where she worked, doused her in gasoline and set her alight. Saduova died after enduring four days of agony in the hospital.
In October, Saduov was sentenced to 18 years in jail for the killing, which he continued to deny committing in the face of overwhelming evidence.
But while some react with dismay to such cases, others appear indifferent. Some comments under news articles documenting Yessentayeva’s beating even betrayed some sympathy for her attacker. “Any normal man would do the same thing to a wife that cheated on him,” one commentator wrote.
“She got what she deserved, she grew insolent,” according to another reader on news website Nur.kz.
Laws intended to tackle domestic violence were approved last year. Physical assault or any actions leading to ill health were upgraded from civil offenses to criminal offenses. Those found guilty face either fines, community service or jail terms of up to 45 days.
People working with battered women say these deterrents have had little effect. Irina Zhdanova, head of the Moy Dom social support center, told EurasiaNet.org that the problem is that many women simply avoid going to the police in the first place. Victims of domestic violence often prefer to leave things “as they are” rather than rock the boat, Zhdanova said.
Zhdanova added that because women subjected to interminable physical abuse also endure substantial emotional distress, they lack the mental focus to take charge of their situation by learning about their legal rights and acting upon them. “Eighty percent of women that end up in shelters have come out of orphanages, they are not used to trusting people,” Zhdanova said. “They have trouble getting settled in family life. They cannot accept themselves for who they are. They don’t know about their rights and they take a passive attitude toward life’s problems.”
Once women have spent time getting back on their feet in shelters, they have few options on where to go next. The choice can often be as bleak as simply returning to a violent husband.
The picture is the same as in every country plagued by domestic violence. Reports of household violence are often called in by neighbors. When police officers turn up, the victims of abuse are reluctant to file a complaint. A neighborhood policeman will sometimes issue a warning note valid for a month. If there are any reported instances of domestic unrest during that period, then the suspected offender can face up to five days in jail. Practice shows that this warning system is ineffective, however.
“Society needs to understand that domestic violence is a crime,” police Maj. Aigul Bekmagambetova, who deals with tackling the problem, told the news website Zakon.kz in an interview last year. “The problem of domestic violence in the country is worsening against the backdrop of a shortage of shelters for victims. We all need to change our attitude and adopt a zero-tolerance position against those who allow violence in the family. We need to reach the point where those who create turmoil in the family are universally condemned. We cannot be silent on this issue.”
This article was updated to correct the period at which UN Women provided their figures on domestic violence.
Aktan Rysaliev is a pseudonym for a journalist working in Almaty, Kazakhstan.