In June, I wrote a post about violence erupting in Kyrgyztan and its impact on women. For those who do not know, an unidentified number of Kyrgyz systematically targeted Uzbek neighbors for several days, including nearly burning down one of largest cities in the state and moving slowly out to the rural areas. Homes and shops were burned and women and children fled through the streets, being trampled, caught in the crossfire, and potentially targeted for sexual and emotional abuse. They were herded toward the border even though the Kyrgyz had intentionally blocked the ditch they would have to cross to flee to safety; in other words, the women and children were intentionally forced together in a holding area while Kyrgyz killed off the men. The first female acting-President, Roza Otunbayeva, begged for direct military action from international governments that came too late. Her ascendancy to power and proposed reforms, including the use of Kyrgyzstan by U.S. troops stationed there, is said to have sparked the ethnic cleansing attempt targeting her fellow Uzbekis and potentially fueling the inaction of the U.S. Base. Like the current scapegoating of Latin@ and Muslim immigrants in the U.S., the Uzbekis were targeted because of Political turmoil, unemployment, growing migration, criminal activity, and growing religious intolerance and at the center was the belief that an ethnic minority female president was not only unqualified to lead but also playing favorites by nature of shared identity.
A month later, women were at the center of rebuilding both the burned out communities and the sense of trust across ethno-religious lines. The city itself maintained a curfew and tensions continued in general, flaring up in small acts of violence on both sides. Like so many communities who experienced unchecked ethnic cleansing then end of major violence has left the population weary, scarred, and angry. Women in particular are surviving the scars of being raped, beaten, disappeared, taken hostage, forced to flee their homes, wounded, and killed. Many are trying to rebuild families that were separated only to find that most of their missing relatives are dead. And yet, according to Dr. Nurgul Djanaeva, the founder and president of the Forum of Women’s NGOs of Kyrgyzstan, no one had created bureaus specifically for dealing with women’s trauma, the potential for ongoing targeting of women in the aftermath, or the documenting of gender based violence against women during the conflict. One other major hindrance has been the stigma of rape and sexual assault that is making women wary of being counted or exposed while seeking treatment.
Women’s NGOs are at the forefront of bringing women together to heal. They are taking a lesson from other ethnic cleansing incidents in Europe, Africa, and Latin America to address specific gender based violence and support the centrality of women’s voices and experiences in rebuilding the nation. The hope is that rather than sparking ethno-religious misogyny in the future, women’s leadership will become a regularized part of Kyrgyzstan life.
While the conflict has led to opportunities for women, the trajectory of that conflict and its specific use of gender based violence largely unchecked by international peace keeping forces is becoming all too familiar. The strategic location of the U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan and the ties to Russia were leveraged against the proposed autonomy of the people and the safety and security of women, children, and ethnic minorities. The rhetoric turning neighbor against neighbor is no longer the stuff of “never again” (WWII) but instead the common day occurrences that allow “good Americans” to burn other people’s holy books regardless of its impact on them or the U.S. troops they claim to support and have radio broadcasts using racial “puns” about rape and sexual assault of Latinas while others form vigilante groups and beat immigrants, often to death. What is the dividing line between those whose fears and misplaced envy is harnessed by radio stations and politicians into a lethal genocidal force and those who claim their references to “re-loading” are metaphorical? And why is it that despite what we know about how women are targeted both during these conflicts and in the makeshift camps built to keep them safe in the aftermath, why do we still fail to take this knowledge into account to ensure women’s bodily integrity? And why, after all the genocide we have seen in this world, are the military and economic interests of major Super Powers more important than safety and security of women’s lives? Haven’t we learned that societies where women have access to education, family planning, and representation and poor people have access to jobs, food, and shelter free of discrimination, are more stable than places where both populations, and their intersections, are exploitable? But then asking these questions might make us have to look at foreign policy through the lens of humanity rather than profit and ask when and where we are culpable and how these “exceptions” are in fact just more extreme versions of behaviors that permeate our own society.
- Guns, Rape and Rockets – All Tools of War in Kyrgyzstan (humanrights.change.org)
- Refugees return to Kyrgyzstan (news.bbc.co.uk)
- Kyrgyz troops ‘storm Uzbek hospital’ (independent.co.uk)