Women in Kazakhstan facing domestic violence receive insufficient protection and have little recourse for justice, Human Rights Watch said on October 17.

The Kazakhstan government sought to prevent family violence when adopting the Law on Prevention of Domestic Violence a decade ago. But it still needs to take urgent steps to address gaps in legal protections and barriers survivors face in seeking justice and support services.

“Kazakhstan should have made much greater strides in protecting women from violence, but instead women continue to suffer,” said Viktoriya Kim, assistant Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government has renewed its commitments to provide help, but at the same time is sending women, and abusers, the message that abuse inside the home isn’t to be taken seriously.”

Between April and August 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed 16 domestic violence survivors and 26 others, including women’s rights activists, shelter staff, lawyers, and a police officer responsible for protecting women from violence under a municipal department of the Ministry of Interior.

The Union of Crisis Centers of Kazakhstan, an umbrella organization of 16 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), reports that partners kill hundreds of women in Kazakhstan each year and that domestic violence takes place in one out of every eight families in Kazakhstan. Zulfia Baisakova, the head of the organization, said it receives about 14,000 calls annually regarding domestic violence, the vast majority from women. According to 2017 government statistics, 17 percent of all women ages 18 to 75 have experienced physical or sexual violence by a current or former husband or partner.

Human Rights Watch found that Kazakh authorities are neither adequately preventing violence nor holding abusers accountable. Police do not routinely inform women about available services and protection, such as their right to seek shelter or protection orders. Women said that police often encourage them to drop their complaints and reconcile with their abusers.

In July 2017, then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed amendments to Kazakhstan’s criminal code decriminalizing “battery” and “intentional infliction of light bodily harm,” the articles most commonly used to investigate and prosecute domestic violence. This effectively eliminates the possibility of criminal prosecution for most domestic violence cases.

In 2009, Kazakhstan adopted the Law on Prevention of Domestic Violence, which defines domestic violence as “a deliberate unlawful action or inaction” that includes “physical, psychological, sexual and/or economic” violence” and applies to “spouses and ex-spouses, persons who live or have lived together (cohabitants and former cohabitants), close relatives and persons who have a child or children in common.” The law provides for short-term protection orders, intended to prohibit contact between a survivor and their abuser for up to 30 days, and for survivors’ access to shelters and other services. However, neither the Domestic Violence Law nor the criminal code specifically criminalizes domestic violence.

On September 2, 2019, in his first address to the nation since taking office on June 12, Kazakhstan's new president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, said that in protecting the rights and security of its citizens Kazakhstan “urgently needs to tighten the penalties for sexual violence… and domestic violence against women.”

On October 10 and 11, in letters to Human Rights Watch, both the Supreme Court of Kazakhstan and the Interior Ministry respectively stated that there is a draft law that proposes amendments to the criminal and criminal procedure codes, including through tougher penalties for sex crimes, domestic violence, and similar offenses.

Human Rights Watch found that police and staff at crisis centers operated by either the government or nongovernmental groups have not received sufficient specialized training to respond effectively to victims of domestic violence. Domestic abuse in Kazakhstan is still widely perceived as a “family matter” and is underreported to police, Human Rights Watch found. Women’s rights activists, lawyers, service providers, and survivors all said that social barriers discourage women from reporting abuse to anyone outside the home, including to other members of their own families. State policies aimed at keeping the family “intact” make it more difficult for women to escape violence.

The Interior Ministry letter said that presently 40 crisis centers are functioning throughout the country. But as Kazakhstan’s population is over 18 million, this number suggests that the total number of shelter spaces for domestic violence victims falls short of recommended standards of one shelter space per 10,000 people. Dozens of NGOs also provide services, but such initiatives are not a sustainable alternative to government services and crisis centers. Moreover, staff at nongovernmental crisis centers said that they struggle to sustain services, including shelter, due to the lack of adequate funding.

Human Rights Watch also found that government-run crisis centers do not meet international standards for services for domestic violence survivors, and that many women in Kazakhstan still do not know where to turn for help. In the crisis centers Human Rights Watch visited, researchers found insufficient security procedures and heard testimony that crisis center staff blamed survivors for “provoking” their partners and urged them to reconcile with their abusers.

The Kazakh government’s failure to adequately protect women against domestic violence and ensure their access to justice violates Kazakhstan’s international human rights obligations, in particular under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The committee that oversees its implementation will review Kazakhstan’s progress during its 74th session from October 21 through November 8.

The Kazakh government should move urgently to amend the criminal code to recognize domestic violence as a stand-alone criminal offense and ensure that it carries penalties commensurate to the gravity of the violence, Human Rights Watch said.

Kazakh authorities should ensure that police respond effectively to domestic violence reports and that women facing abuse have access to support services, including crisis centers. Government service providers, police officers, medical personnel, and other relevant officials working on domestic violence should more regularly receive specialized training in preventing and responding to domestic violence.

“Women in Kazakhstan have the right to a life without violence, abuse, and harassment,” Kim said. “Kazakh authorities should ensure their safety and take urgent steps to fulfill its international obligations on domestic violence.”