Strange things are afoot in Kyrgyzstan. News broke on Wednesday that Jogorku Kengesh, the small Central Asian state’s parliament, passed a resolution that would require young women wishing to travel abroad to supply a written note from their parents. Concerns cited by the resolution’s initiator, MP Yrgal Kadyralieva, include curbing human trafficking, protecting the girls’ honor, and preventing a demographic crisis by preserving the Kyrgyz gene pool. For good measure, she throws in a moral-panic reference to Kyrgyz girls going abroad, giving birth and abandoning their babies in the street.
I’m never a fan of demographic excuses for restricting women’s rights, but I’m always especially baffled in situations where there is no demographic crisis to fix. The fertility rate in Kyrgyzstan is 2.73 children per woman, with rates among ethnic Kyrgyz women likely higher, and the population has been growing fairly steadily for nearly two decades. On the other hand, Kyrgyzstan does have a brain drain problem – an estimated 2000 college graduates, over 5% of the country’s graduating class, emigrates each year. Perhaps this legislation was proposed under the assumption that restricting young women’s movements would be culturally acceptable to the majority of Kyrgyzstanis, and would thus be a good way to stem the tide of brain drain without discouraging economically important labor migration by young men. (Remittances from labor migration make up an estimated 15% of the country’s GDP.)
However, it did not turn out to be as culturally acceptable as was, perhaps, expected. There was an immediate outcry by human rights ombudsman Tursunbek Akun, the Bishkek feminist collective SQ, and Kyrgyzstani citizens living abroad. Strangely, when the dust settled on Thursday evening, it turned out that the reported-on resolution text was never passed. Kadyralieva seems to have clearly mentioned the travel restriction to the media, and the resolution was passed in committee with the restriction in place in March of this year – but in the version of the resolution ultimately passed by parliament at large and posted on Jogorku Kengesh’s website, there’s no travel restriction to be found. No one seems to know whether it was removed before the resolution (which now only mentions general measures for counting and protecting emigrants) was passed, or ex post facto in reaction to the public outcry.
An even more fascinating twist to this story is that such a rule is already in force in Uzbekistan. My attention was drawn to this by a commenter on Registan.net, who recounts the hoops she had to jump through the last time she tried to leave Uzbekistan. Ultimately, she had to get her younger brother to write the letter permitting her to leave, as her father is deceased and she has no older brother or husband. (She has been joined in the comments there by another Uzbekistani woman telling a similar story; I recommend reading both.)
There’s not a ton of information on the Uzbek law out there, and a particular dearth of English-language sources, but CentrAzia.net, quoting opposition news site Fergana.ru, reports that it came into force in early 2011. In clear violation of Uzbekistan’s constitution, it requires young women ages 18-35(!) traveling to countries requiring a visa to submit verification, signed by their parents or husband, that they will not engage in prostitution abroad. Additionally, the responsible (read: male) parties assume responsibility for the traveler’s safe passage out of and back into Uzbekistan. Ostensibly, travelers with an invitation from a place of work or study do not need to submit this letter, but the comments linked above indicate that the law is poorly understood, unevenly enforced, and generally a great excuse for officials to extort lunch out of you. And, one assumes, a way to use the power of suggestion to subtly discourage paternalistic families from letting their young female members travel abroad. Very clever, Uzbekistan.
In the end, say what you will about Kyrgyzstan’s commitment to democratic ideals – at least the lawmakers discussed this resolution with the press before its passage, and ultimately removed the section that was in violation of the constitution that some of them probably helped to draft. For now I’ll call it a near miss, but as the resolution that ultimately passed does call for Kyrgyzstan to actively develop a demographic and migration policy, young Kyrgyzstani women may not be out of the woods just yet.