Parliament in Uzbekistan has adopted landmark legislation aimed at providing women and children with greater legal protections against gender-based violence.
The long-anticipated bill approved unanimously by the upper house of the parliament on April 6 is the first legislation of its kind in Uzbekistan to specifically target domestic abuse.
Under the new law, which must still be approved by the president before it can come into effect, fines or prison time are envisioned for people found guilty of assaulting a current or former spouse, a cohabitant, or the parent of a shared child.
Another provision bars individuals with a criminal record for sexually abusing a minor from holding jobs involving contact with children. People with prior conviction for such offenses are to be placed on a register.
Tanzila Narbayeva, chairwoman of the Senate, said this breakthrough was the fruit of much hard work.
“Work on this legislation lasted over one year. There were difficulties and resistance. I can state with confidence that our law is progressive and in line with international norms,” Narbayeva said during voting.
While adoption of the legislation has been greeted jubilantly by the activists that lobbied for its passage, some degree of uncertainty on its contents remains. As is customary, a definitive version of the bill has not been released to the public, meaning that the severity of penalties reserved for offenders is not yet known with certainty.
Broad details have been divulged, however. Punishments for offenders found guilty of committing sexual violence, including against minors, has been stiffened. Such people will not be eligible for conditional release. And claimed ignorance of a victim’s age will no longer be admitted as grounds for mitigation during sentencing.
Adoption of the bill comes at a time of particularly heightened emotion on the topic of violence against women and minors following recent revelations about a case of sustained sexual abuse against three young girls in an orphanage. Reporting done by a Tashkent-based nongovernmental group devoted to combating violence against women and children revealed how the head of an orphanage had made three vulnerable girls available to various men in return for money and favors. This carried on for 10 months up until February 2022.
Among the details that most shocked the public was the fact that the men were sentenced to only one-and-a-half years of restricted freedom. Following an upswell of furor, the Supreme Court on April 3 announced that it would review the case.
The domestic violence bill was put together in an ostensibly collaborative effort between lawmakers and women’s rights activists. But Irina Matvienko, a founder of Nemolchi.uz (Speak Up), an independent project on domestic violence in Uzbekistan, told news outlet Mediazona in an interview before the bill was passed by the Senate that activists faced resistance every step of the way.
“Why is the issue of criminalization of domestic violence so scary? ... Maybe because they themselves beat their wives? Because they don’t see anything wrong with it? They had no clear arguments on this issue,” she said.
Matvienko noted that lawmakers appeared resistant to provisions to impose a harsher penalty for having sexual relations with minors.
“Deputies, senators are starting to give us arguments that there are 15-year-old girls who are depraved, of easy virtue, and so on. If a man sleeps with her, [if it is deemed] she herself seduced him, then he cannot be judged for it,” she said.
Domestic abuse is rampant in Uzbekistan. According to official figures, given by Narbayeva before the Senate, law enforcement agencies in 2021-22 received more than 72,000 complaints of harassment and violence against women and girls. Fully 85 percent of the incidents occurred within families.
And that may only be the tip of the iceberg.
The International Partnership for Human Rights, or IPHR, a coalition of advocacy groups based in Brussels, dwelled in a January 2022 report on the problem of deep-rooted misogynistic attitudes in Uzbek society.
“Society typically blames the victim rather than the perpetrator. According to women’s activists in Uzbekistan, many people believe that women ‘provoke’ or ‘deserve’ violence, that women victims of domestic violence are ‘masochistic,’ that ‘quarrels’ between husbands and wives are natural, and that victims of abuse are always free to leave their homes,” the IPHR report concluded.
In 2022, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women pleaded with Uzbekistan to address women’s rights, raising concern about “the high incidence of gender-based violence against women.”
Accounts of transgressions are commonplace.
In March alone, local media reported on multiple cases of violent domestic abuse incidents. In one case from the Ferghana region, a singer called Dilmurod Daliyev was arrested for allegedly killing a woman he lived with. He reportedly stabbed the woman several times with a kitchen knife during a quarrel. In another case, in Tashkent, an athlete brutally beat his wife and his nine-year-old son.