“Even now, I can’t find the words to explain the kinds of horrors that are happening,” wrote Nurjan Tulegabylova with El Agartuu, a women’s organization based in Kyrgyzstan. “There are burned houses, but the worst is that corpses of people are lying on the street.”
In June, in the span of 2-3 days, over 2,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands of people displaced in southern Kyrgyzstan. Violence erupted in Osh and Jalal-Abad in the Ferghana Valley, where Uzbeks make up 15 percent of the population. Kyrgyzs gangs set on fire homes and businesses in Uzbek neighborhoods, forcing over 100,000 ethnic Uzbeks to seek refuge by crossing the border to Uzbekistan. The Uzbek government accepted 75,000 refugees, but quickly sealed off the border leaving thousands of ethnic Uzbeks homeless and living in fear.
The most vulnerable during this conflict, however, are women who have experienced harassment, rape, and murder. According to the head of the Forum of Women’s NGOs of Kyrgyzstan, Nurgul Djanaeva, “Women and girls of both ethnic groups were raped and killed during unrest in the south of Kyrgyzstan.” Because of the deep patriarchal culture that permeates the region, gender-based violence has not received widespread attention. “This issue is not addressed, not documented, and no one is brought to answer for these crimes,” says Djanaeva. “Women become weapons of war in the hands of those who want to destabilize the country.”
According to several women’s groups the Global Fund for Women supports, many women have lost their family and friends and have nowhere to go. According to an article by Rochelle Jones, one woman “witnessed her pregnant Uzbek neighbor dragged into the street and murdered by a gang of Kyrgyz who cut her unborn child out of her body amid laughing and roaring crowds.” “These women need urgent psychological rehabilitation,” writes Tulegabylova, “because many of them are on the verge of a breakdown and are at risk of suicide.”
Most observers of the June ethnic conflict point to the April 2010 elections in Kyrgyzstan where a change in political power sparked unrest. Yet the ethnic tensions have been fueled by neglect: years of unaddressed mistrust and separation among ethnic groups, as well as crumbling social infrastructure and welfare systems. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, two significant trends emerged across the region. One was the rise in nationalism fueled by the need to create a national identity, which was suppressed under Communism. The other was the gradual erosion of the social welfare state as each country adopted free-market capitalism as their economic system. The rise in nationalism and decline in the social welfare state have together created a volatile climate where blaming the “other” has been easier than addressing these systemic causes. Worse, news reports show Uzbek returnees (and their Kyrgyz neighbors) purchasing guns to secure themselves and their families.
Organizing for Peace
Yet there are some hopeful signs. When violence broke out in Southern Kyrgyzstan this June, women’s human rights defenders were among the first to respond to the crisis. As targeted attacks against Uzbeks increased, women’s rights groups in Osh and Jalal-Abad helped their Uzbek colleagues and clients find safe places to stay. When women of both Kyrgyz and Uzbek ethnicities were raped, women’s crisis centers responded with emergency medical and psychological support. National women’s networks reached out to women leaders in the South to learn about women’s most urgent needs and coordinate relief plans. Djanaeva traveled from Bishkek to Osh, where she visited hospitals, crisis centers, police stations, and morgues – and found that women’s experiences of gender-based violence were not being documented or responded to by general humanitarian efforts.
The Forum of Women’s NGOs of Kyrgyzstan called an emergency meeting in Bishkek, where women’s leaders from around the country developed a strategy for their response over the next five months, including immediate support for women who have experienced violence, documentation of sexual violence, and peacebuilding efforts among ethnic Uzbek and Kyrgyz women in rural communities throughout Kyrgyzstan.
Such an immediate and well-coordinated response to the crisis does not come as a surprise. Since the 1990s, Kyrgyzstan has grown one of the most vibrant women’s movements in all of Central Asia. Rural women’s initiatives groups have sprung up throughout the country, promoting women’s needs in local budgeting processes, responding to gender-based violence, and advancing women in politics at every level. The movement’s grassroots networking connects rural women activists around the country, enabling quick and strategic responses to the shifting political and social environment. This strength was demonstrated in 2005, when 100 women activists convened within weeks of the Tulip Revolution, the uprising that removed President Askar Akayev from power after accusations of fraudulent parliamentary elections in February 2005. Over the course of two days, the women produced a United Plan of Action, which outlined a common strategy for lobbying for gender equality with the new government.
Five years later, women are again coming together for common action in Kyrgyzstan. In doing so, they are reaching out to the most marginalized women, such as sex workers, women living with HIV, and LBT women. This outreach ensures that these populations, which are often overlooked by general humanitarian efforts, receive aid, support, and safety from additional violence. By bringing together local women of different ethnicities to collaborate on rebuilding their communities, women are addressing the root causes of the violence: years of unaddressed mistrust and separation among ethnic groups, as well as crumbling social infrastructure and welfare systems.
Investing in Women
In the coming weeks, as the provisional government struggles to determine the future of the Kyrgyzstan government and attain stability in the South, it will be these same women that are implementing local peace-building programs and bringing women’s solutions to national discussions.
To prevent further repetition of the recent violence, investment in the long-term stability of the region is desperately needed. The Global Fund for Women knows from 23 years of supporting grassroots women’s initiatives that women on the ground best understand the problems in their communities – and are uniquely positioned to implement realistic, effective solutions.
Women’s human rights defenders in Kyrgyzstan have demonstrated that they have the skills and capacity to begin building stability and trust across ethnic groups in the region. What is wanting is financial support and recognition of these initiatives as legitimate strategies for promoting human security. As we approach the ten year anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls for the inclusion of women in conflict prevention, resolution, and peace building], the situation in Kyrgyzstan presents the international community with an opportunity not only to promote women’s inclusion in the peace-building process, but to recognize and support their role as innovative leaders at the local and national level.
Betsy Hoody is a Program Officer of the Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States at the Global Fund for Women, the world’s largest funder of women’s human rights.