The public in Kazakhstan demands tougher punishment for domestic violence

Общественность в Казахстане требует ужесточения наказания за бытовое насилие

In Astana, city landmarks were illuminated in orange in connection with the international campaign “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.” Photo from the archive. The public in Kazakhstan demands tougher punishment for domestic violence Women

In Kazakhstan, the issue of tightening penalties for domestic violence has recently been actively debated. Now, against the backdrop of a number of high-profile crimes, it has become especially acute. In early November, one of the country’s former high-ranking officials reportedly beat his wife in a restaurant he owned in Astana and the woman died. A week later, reports appeared that two more murders of their wives by husbands had occurred in the capital.

All these alleged crimes received wide publicity in the media and caused a flurry of indignation in Kazakh society. Real battles have erupted on social networks about the need to toughen penalties for violence against women and children; there are calls for the government and legislators to finalize existing bills and provide full protection to victims.

These days The global campaign “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence” is underway. This is an annual UN project that starts on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and ends on December 10, Human Rights Day.

In Astana, as part of this campaign, on the initiative of the UN coordinator in Kazakhstan, an interactive art installation “Untold” was opened, and the UN News Service spoke with Mazhilis (Lower House of Parliament) deputy Sergei Ponomarev and Kazakh human rights activist, doctor of law Khalida Azhigulova.

Social networks as a means of combating violence

As Ponomarev said, about 400 women die every year as a result of gender-based violence in Kazakhstan, while only 40 percent of cases reach the court. However, recently, such crimes have at least become widely publicized, including thanks to modern technology and social networks.

“Thanks to the development of technology, today every person has a smartphone at hand, and therefore can take video and photos of an egregious incident and post it on social networks. There are also external surveillance cameras everywhere in cities. All this allows us to record all categories of crimes, not only against women and children,” says Ponomarev.

“There used to be such a false idea: you shouldn’t wash dirty linen in public. Victims of domestic violence remained silent, which is why the aggressors, having not received a proper rebuff, felt impunity. Today we see that victims of violence have been able to overcome their false shame and talk publicly through social networks about the traumas they suffered. And despite the fact that in discussions on social networks, due to outdated inertia, there is still some censure of victims who decided to talk about themselves, most people still provide them with moral support,” says Azhigulova.

Tougher penalties for beatings

Ponomarev said that recently the Kazakh authorities have taken a number of measures aimed at combating domestic violence. In particular, the possibility of the so-called “reconciliation of the parties” was excluded, due to which many cases did not reach court.

“The victim and the rapist cannot reach reconciliation before court, nor, especially, in the courtroom. If previously, in order to initiate a case, a statement was required from the victim woman, who could refuse to write it or take it away, now to initiate a criminal case, a video from a mobile phone or from street surveillance cameras is sufficient to prove the guilt of the rapist,” reports Ponomarev.

This year the sentences for some of these crimes have increased slightly. If previously an aggressor could receive up to 5 days of arrest for causing minor harm to health, now, after amendments to the Administrative Code, those responsible will spend a longer period in captivity – 15 days. And if detained again, they face up to 25 days in prison.

“What are aggressors afraid of? – says Azhigulova. – They are afraid of punishment in the form of arrest or fine, as well as public censure. When an abuser is exposed, he also carries reputational risks, which forces him to control himself.”

Domestic violence must be re-criminalized

However, recent measures are not enough, many believe. Although the punishment for domestic violence has been somewhat toughened, the gross act of disregard for the health, safety and rights of women remains unchanged: in 2017, domestic violence in Kazakhstan was decriminalized, beatings and causing minor harm to health were classified as administrative rather than criminal offenses.

“Now Kazakhstani society has reached its “boiling point.” Kazakhstanis no longer want to forget or forgive anything. Women no longer agree to tolerate violence in the family and at home. The majority of citizens, judging by the heated discussions on social networks after a series of high-profile murders and incidents of violence against young women and children, demand tougher punishment and criminalization of domestic violence,” says Azhigulova.

November 25, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, a rally was held in Almaty: activists demanded stricter legislation regarding the criminalization of domestic violence.

“As a legal sociologist, I have long advocated the criminalization of all types of domestic violence. I have been actively involved in this issue since 2019. She addressed the head of state, the Prosecutor General’s Office, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic about the need to take such measures and even put forward specific steps. But in response, I received a letter from law enforcement agencies with a list of nine arguments against,” says Azhigulova.

“The first argument is that the criminalization of domestic violence will lead to an increase in the number of divorces. However, according to a 2022 study by the Kazakhstan Institute of Social Development under the Ministry of Information and Social Development, it is domestic violence that leads to divorce, and not punishment for violence. And tightening the fight against violence will be a serious deterrent for domestic abusers,” she adds.

According to Azhigulova, privacy is also often cited as an argument. However, we can only talk about this in cases where we are talking about life within the law, the human rights activist emphasizes.

“And if facts of pedophilia take place behind closed doors, when pornographic films are made with the participation of children, then we are already talking about protecting the rights of the child. And if a former high-ranking official beats his wife in a restaurant he owns so much that she dies, but no one comes to her aid, what to do in this case ?,” she notes.

Recalling the case of former minister Bishimbayev, Azhigulova emphasizes that domestic violence can occur in any family, and it does not depend on a person’s wealth or status.

Zero tolerance for violence as a national idea

According to Azhigulova, in order to change society’s attitude towards the problem of domestic violence, it is necessary to work with the younger generation. Ultimately, zero tolerance for violence must become a legal, social and cultural norm.

“Legal education should be a compulsory subject in the school curriculum. When, from school, children absorb everything like a sponge, and we explain to them what personal integrity is, what personal boundaries are, how they should behave. Only then will we be able to get a generation with a high legal culture. And if the majority of the population is legally literate, then zero tolerance for violence will become the norm in our society,” the human rights activist emphasizes.

“Unfortunately, the problem of the current young generation is complex. There are many reasons for violence: instability, low income, alcoholism. There are practically no young people who read. That is why, in my opinion, we need to adopt a new national idea, the essence of which is indifference to any manifestation of violence against children and women,” says Ponomarev.

People should react to any cases of violence, Ponomarev believes, and show civic responsibility, “for example, when guys drag a girl screaming for help into a car, when children and women are heard crying from the neighbors of the apartment.”


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