Kyrgyzstan President Roza Otunbayeva called on Monday for harsh sentences for thousands of men who kidnap brides in the largely Muslim nation, abusing an ancient tradition.
"Around 15,000 women each year become the victims of bride kidnapping," she said, ordering prosecutors to crack down on offenders in the Central Asian state.
The tradition began as a way of avoiding paying bride money or bypassing parental disapproval in the country which was largely nomadic until late in the Soviet era.
But men are now snatching women they don't know without their consent for abusive marriages that often end in divorce.
Once a woman has been kidnapped, her family is forced to agree to her marriage because she is compromised by her absence from home with a stranger.
"Bride kidnapping is a tradition of the Kyrgyz people, but these crimes often force women to commit suicide," Otunbayeva said at an event to mark the work of the prosecutor's office.
"The country has laws that must protect young girls." To highlight the problem, she launched an official "month against bride kidnapping".
Kyrgyz Ombudsman Tursunbek Akun, who is elected by the parliament to oversee protection of human rights, called for men convicted of kidnapping brides to serve the same sentence as those convicted of other abductions.
Bride snatching theoretically carries a punishment of three years, compared to 10 years for abduction, but in reality no one has been convicted, Akun said. "Can you believe it: no one has ever been brought to account for bride kidnapping," he said.
"I will try to make this crime equal to abduction and I hope that in time, thanks to this, we will manage to deal with the problem."
Akun told AFP that the results of a study across Kyrgyzstan made his "hair stand on end," revealing 15,000-16,000 kidnappings a year with figures rising, with half of such marriages ending in divorce. "We need to protect their right to choose a life partner," he said of the women victims. -AFP