Lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan narrowly passed a draft law on October 5 to criminalize the religious consecration of marriage rites for minors.
If the legislation is approved by President Almazbek Atambayev, clerics officiating such ceremonies could face jail terms of between three and five years, as could parents of the couple.
The vote in parliament marks a volte-face by MPs, who had provoked outrage in May when they rejected proposals to criminalize a ritual known as ‘nikah.’ The changes to the law specifically relate to religious marriage rites, as opposed to nuptials registered with the state. The legal age of marriage in Kyrgyzstan is 18, although that can be lowered by special dispensation.
Supporters of the new law in parliament did not mince their words.
“Let’s call things by their names and not hide behind nice words about national traditions and rites. People under the age of 18 are considered children according to our legislation, so forcing them into marriage or other actions is pedophilia. I ask each man in this room to imagine their daughters while voting. But while you can defend [your daughters] from early marriages, many of our children from poor families don’t have such an opportunity,” Natalia Nikitenko, a member of parliament with the Ata-Meken party, said during a discussion of the bill.
But some MPs resisted the bill on the grounds that it is against what they say is the spirit of Kyrgyz traditions, others questioned whether the law would help bring offending clerics to heel. Social-Democratic Party MP Dastan Bekeshev argued that it would be impossible to find evidence of the illegal rite taking place.
The initiator of the bill, former general prosecutor Aida Salyanova, said clerics from the Spiritual Department of Muslims had contributed to drafting the bill. Religious authorities would assist in upholding the law, she said.
“They promised that they would issue a fatwa in which they describe the procedure and rules of the nikah. Moreover, they will have a [database] … where they will register every marrying couple,” she said.
But speaking to Zanoza news website, the deputy mufti of Kyrgyzstan, Akimzhan ajy Ergeshov said that not only had no fatwa yet been issued, but it may not come at all.
“It will be good if the couple have [marriage certificate before coming to perform the nikah]. But while they are waiting for the paperwork, are they supposed to live without God’s blessing? We have to worry about the moral fiber of the youth — they are living an unruly life. In reality, not many girls are getting married before turning 18. What we would say is that it is not worth getting so worked up about 20 or 25 women. And they’re not getting married at 10 or 12 years of age,” he said.
But the phenomenon of the very young entering into marriages in Kyrgyzstan is not unusual. The National Statistics Commission estimates that 15 percent of married women between the ages of 25 and 49 sealed their nuptials before turning 18 — 1 percent did it under the age of 15. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, a United Nations body that monitors implementation of international conventions protecting children’s interests, has in recent years voiced concern over what it termed “the widespread phenomena of child early and forced marriages” in Kyrgyzstan.
Kidnapping and then forcing minors into marriages is already subject to penalties of up to seven years in jail. Only 25 cases related to bride-kidnapping were brought to Kyrgyz courts, while unofficial stats claim more than 10,000 young women are kidnapped every year.