Bride Abductions in Kazakhstan and Human Trafficking Discourse: Tradition vs Moral Acuity


Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have been efforts in Kazakhstan to:

             a) return to tradition and leave the practices of the Soviet Union in the past and

             b) to modernize the legal, political and economic systems of the country.

These two distinct efforts do not always mesh well together. The efforts to return to traditional ‘Kazakh’ practices often chafe against certain human rights practices, including women’s rights. Within the past 30 years, perceived traditional marriage practices, such bride abductions (also known as bride kidnappings), have returned to certain parts of Kazakhstan. These specific marriage practices are a prime example of the inconsistencies and moral and cultural dilemmas that occur while pursuing the two above goals.

While the government of Kazakhstan has been supporting the perceived return to traditional Kazakh gender roles and marriage traditions (efforts a), it has simultaneously recognized human trafficking as a problem that exists within the country, and a serious issue that deserves their attention and efforts (efforts b). Over the past 25 years, and especially since 2008, there has been an increase in anti-trafficking efforts in the country, but there has also been an increase in bride abductions.  There seems to be an innate conflict between considering non-consensual bride abductions a return to culture, but also considering human trafficking to be an issue. This contention between the rise of ‘legal’ cultural bride abductions, and the increase in anti-human trafficking legislation and efforts, poses an interesting question:

Should non-consensual cultural bride abductions in Kazakhstan be considered a form of human trafficking under the legal definition?

Development of Human Trafficking Discourse in Kazakhstan:

To begin to ponder this question, first it is important to understand what is primarily considered human trafficking in Kazakhstan under ‘conventional’ international, and Kazakh law.

According the US Department of State’s 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, (2) Kazakhstan is primarily a destination country, but also a source and transit country for the ‘conventional’ human trafficking victim. Meaning, a person who is forced into a form of labor without consent. While international trafficking receives the most attention in Kazakhstan, and is considered the main problem, domestic trafficking actually accounts for the most identified victims. The conventional male victims are often subjected to labor exploitation in Russian, while girls and women from rural areas are subjected to sex trafficking in the Middle East, Europe, East Asia, the United States and large cities in Kazakhstan. Large numbers of people from rural villages, who are often lured into trafficking situations through fraud, deceit and promises of good jobs. (2) These reported trafficking situations fit the common discourse on who a trafficking victim is, and how they got into the situation.

Regarding combating human trafficking Kazakhstan is a Tier 2 country according to the TIP report. The Government of Kazakhstan does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. It is, however, increasing efforts by increasing prosecution and conviction of human traffickers, and expanding protection of victims by opening four new shelters and approving a budget for shelter and victim assistance. Nevertheless, alleged traffickers are still allowed to pay settlement to victims to withdraw their criminal cases, and the media continues to report allegations of police officers’ complicity without the government investigating. Despite the fact that there are still major problems, the TIP report shows that Kazakhstan is putting effort into combating the problem, and has received international attention of doing so.

Development of Human Trafficking Law:

These efforts include the implementation of a variety of laws. In 2000, the first anti-human trafficking law in Kazakhstan, the “Law On Governmental Protection of Individuals Involved in Criminal Procedure” was ratified and provided basic legal protections for trafficking victims and their families. Also, procedural recommendations on the investigation of human traffic were developed. In 2003, the Interdepartmental Commission under the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan for Combat against Illegal Export, Import and Human Trafficking came into being. (11)

On July 31, 2008, Kazakhstan ratified the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children that supplements the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (3). This has been the main driving force behind law regarding human trafficking. With the adoption of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Kazakhstan comes to define human trafficking as:

…the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs. (5)

“Together against trafficking” A group of students in Almaty

Kazakhstan officially adopted this definition and has since been using it combat trafficking, and also write their own criminal code. The National Human Rights Action Plan of the Republic of Kazakhstan 2009-2012 (13) was approved by the President of Kazakhstan in 2009 and included a clause on the fight to end human trafficking. Specifically, within the section “Rights of Women”, there are two clauses: “The Right to Freedom from Domestic Violence” and the “Prevention of Trafficking in Women and Children” that work to increase anti-human trafficking efforts. (4) This clause also includes the three elements of the Protocol; The Act, The Means, and The Purpose, as well as the definition of a trafficking situation. (3)

While Kazakhstan has made significant efforts in fighting human trafficking, there are still discrepancies between the law, how the definition of human trafficking is interpreted and the implementation. These discrepancies come into play regarding the issue of bride abductions.

Non-Consensual Bride Abduction as a Marriage Practice:

Bride Abduction is considered a marriage practice, and is still used today in certain parts of the world, including Kazakhstan. According the United Nations Women’s website, bride kidnapping:

…involves taking a female without her consent for the purpose of forcing her to marry one of her captors. Perpetrators may use psychological coercion or physical force, including rape, to force the woman or girl into marriage. As with other forms of forced marriage, the key elements are: the taking of a woman or girl; an absence of her consent; for the purpose of marriage. (6)

           There are four different types of bride abductions that are used as marriage practices according to Barbara Ayres in the book The Transformation of Central Asia: States and Societies from Soviet Rule to Independence; “wife raiding”, “genuine bride thief”, “mock bride thief” and “ceremonial capture”. “Wife raiding” occurs when men from one community raid another community and steal women as brides. “Genuine bride thief” is when the groom specifically targets and kidnaps a certain woman through force. “Mock bride thief” is when the bride consents to being ‘kidnapped’ as a way to elope. “Ceremonial capture” is a ritual that takes places with full consent of the bride and her family. In Kazakhstan, all types except “wife raiding” occur. (7) The concern is “genuine bride thief” when the bride did not consent to being ‘kidnapped’ and is often forced into accepting the marriage through force, intimation, or societal pressure.

According to tradition, the abduction of a woman damages the family’s honor and the acceptance of the marriage serves to restore that honor. The societal pressures and stigmas surrounding ‘loss of virginity after a night at a man’s house’ and family honor serve as coercive factors in acceptance. For example, a girl who rejects a marriage after being abducted is considered a “girl who returned home”, a shameful title that often leads to rejection and being considered an ‘easy’ woman, not worth the bride price. (1)

According to many Kazakhs, it is troubling that there has been a resurgence of bride abductions 70 years after the practice was banned by the Soviets. Interestingly, many find it distasteful when men abduct women against their will, but also believe an abducted woman must accept the marriage because it is ‘cultural’. It is a common belief that in pre-Soviet times, bride abductions were a traditional, cultural way to obtain a wife. With the reemergence of the ‘Kazakh’ identity, this reemergence of the practice is viewed as return to the ‘Kazakh’ roots of marriage, and one who rejects these Kazakh roots, is rejecting their culture. (1)

According to various historic sources, non-consensual abductions were actually quite rare and punished by law in pre-Soviet times. However, in 1920 when Soviet Union outlawed ‘crimes of custom’, this included a specific clause about bride abductions. It was the Soviet attempt to outlaw this rare practice, not the actual historical prevalence of the practice that created the present day belief that bride abductions were a common cultural practice that was brutally repressed during the Soviet period. With the increase in nationalism what was once not common is now viewed as an accepted practice in the name of ‘Kazakh identity’. (1)

Should Bride Abduction Be Considered Human Trafficking?

The important question, is should these bride abductions be considered a human trafficking violation according to the law. “Genuine bride thief” occurs primarily when the groom and several male friends use force or deception to abduct a woman and take her to the groom’s house. There, she is held against her will while being pressured by his family members to accept the marriage. She can be held for days until she agrees to the marriage and writes a letter telling her parents it was ‘her idea’. Often, the parents of the groom support his decision to ‘take a bride’ because the daughter-in-law is traditionally expected to do all the household chores, serve the grooms parents, and provide children. In Kazakh culture, especially in the southern rural areas the role of the new wife is to quietly serve her new family.

According to this illustration of “genuine bride thief” in Kazakhstan, there is The Act, The Means, and The Purpose that define human trafficking in international law. With the original act of kidnapping an intended bride “by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception…” (3), “genuine bride thief” meets the first requirement of human trafficking in the Protocol definition. Not only is there the physical act of kidnapping, but the societal pressure to accept the marriage as described above can be seen as a form of coercion. According to this definition, “Exploitation shall include, at a minimum…other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude…” (3). A marriage means sexual relations, for pleasure and for children. An unwilling bride would be sexually exploited by the groom. Also, the bride is expected to labor and serve the groom’s family.

By examining the forced sexual relations that exist when a bride is forced to accept a marriage, and the forced labor that she is then forced to do while serving the household, it appears that non-consensual bride abductions should be considered a form of human trafficking according to the definitions of human trafficking that the Republic of Kazakhstan adopted in 2008.

The Problem: Cultural Rights vs Human Rights

Direct violence, structural violence and cultural violence all lead to the perpetuation of the violence against women.

The problem with why bride abductions are not considered to be human trafficking, despite the fact that they meet the legal definition is that bride abductions are ‘cultural’. According to Human Rights Watch, “A consequence of regarding bride kidnapping as a tradition is that it becomes part of the unwritten social charter and is deemed above criticism.” (10). Throughout the world, violence against women is defended in the name of culture. This makes it incredibly hard to change, prosecute or discuss the action. (1). As long as bride abduction is considered a cultural, ‘Kazakh’ tradition in the southern provinces, it will continue to be mostly ignored as a practice, despite the fact that it fits the international, and Kazakh definition of human trafficking.


Bride abductions have been acknowledged as a form of “culture-based violence against women” in Kazakhstan at the Fourth World Conference on Women (8). However, they have not been considered a form of human trafficking, even though they share many of the human trafficking characters as defined by the United Nations. Despite efforts made to combat human trafficking, Kazakhstan has actually made it easier to abduct a bride. In 1998, Kazakhstan dropped a clause in their criminal law that criminalized the abduction of women against their will. (8) While simultaneously drawing more attention to human trafficking in the country, it appears that the government is confused about the status of bride abductions. While meeting the criteria in the law to be considered a human trafficking violation, bride abductions are considered ‘cultural’, not ‘criminal’ and therefore above reproach from the law, or at least, something that cannot be solved in the current era of Kazakh nationalism, and should therefore be ignored.
















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