In Kyrgyzstan, someone who steals a cow could go to prison for up to 11 years. But men who kidnap underage girls and force them into marriage run little risk of prosecution -- although current legislation does provide for a three-year sentence.
That may be about to change -- at least a little bit.
A bill working its way through the Kyrgyz parliament would increase the maximum sentence for those kidnapping girls under 17 years of age to 10 years in prison. That would make the penalty equal to that for ordinary abductions.
Under the new legislation, those kidnapping women over 17 would face five-year sentences.
The bill, which passed its second reading on October 18, must still pass a third reading and be signed by President Almazbek Atambaev to become law.
The new sentences would still be lower than for livestock theft, but supporters nonetheless say the proposed legislation is a vast improvement, especially if the crime is actually prosecuted.
In addition to improving the protection of women's rights, they say, it would also help address the endemic problem of underage marriage in Kyrgyzstan.
Banura Abdieva is head of the women's rights organization Leader. She spoke to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service during a rally by activists in front of parliament as lawmakers debated the bill on October 18.
"Article 155 [of the Criminal Code dealing with bride kidnapping] must be implemented immediately," said Banura Abdieva during a rally by activists in front of parliament as lawmakers debated the bill on October 18. "Bride kidnapping contradicts the Sharia law and the state law, so ask yourself: what is ruling Kyrgyz society?"
As legislators entered the parliament building, Abdieva and other activists distributed copies of the suicide note of Yrys Kasymbai, a 20-year-old kidnapping victim who hanged herself after being forced to marry her abductor and have unwanted sexual relations with him.
The man, Shayimbek Imankulov, was sentenced in September to six years in prison in the northeastern Issykul Province for the abduction and rape of Kasymbai. It was the harshest sentence yet for a crime involving bride kidnapping.
Opponents of the new legislation have argued that the increased sentences were excessively harsh and that bride kidnapping is a Kyrgyz tradition.
While Kyrgyz courts hear hundreds of cases of livestock theft every year, relatively few proceedings are initiated in cases of bride kidnapping.
That’s because kidnapped brides sometimes consent to their fate, are isolated in the home of the abductor, or are reluctant to press charges because they face pressure from their family, society, and local authorities.
Bride kidnapping is often accompanied by violent crimes such as rape, which are also rarely prosecuted.
There is no reliable figure, but rights activists estimate that nearly 12,000 women and girls are kidnapped and forced into marriage annually.
A 2011 UN report cites studies showing that as many as 80 percent of all marriages in some rural areas are the result of bride kidnapping.
Bride snatching in Kyrgyzstan is tightly connected to the issue of underage marriage since many of the abducted brides are less than 18 years old, the minimum legal age for marriage.
Children's rights activist Elena Voronina maintains that phenomenon has been on the rise in recent years.
"[My colleagues and I] are sure that early marriage is increasing rather than decreasing,' she said."[According to statistics from 2006], approximately 12 percent of women get married before 18. Most of them live in rural areas and they are from disadvantaged families. According to our recent statistics, the rate for early marriage is 14.2 percent in rural places and 9 percent in cities."
Critics say girls coerced into early marriage are often denied opportunities for education and become the victims of forced domestic labor.
Jamal Frontbek-kyzy, chairwoman of the Muslim women's NGO Mutaqalim, believes that underage marriage should be a decision taken by the girl and no one else.
"Getting married at an early age is the personal decision of every girl and no one can force her, not even her parents," she said. "Sometimes, when a girl says she is willing to get married at an early age, parents oppose her decision. This is the personal decision of that girl. I want to repeat again that kidnapping or forced marriage is against Islam."
Many kidnapped brides have their union sanctioned by a religious ceremony. But underage marriages are generally not registered by the state, leaving the girls with few legal rights.
Twenty-year-old Alimakhan, a resident of the southern city of Batken who was kidnapped when she was 16, is a single mother with a three-year-old child.
"Right after finishing school I was kidnapped by a fellow from my village," she said. "After 26 days of living together he left for Russia. I stayed at his parents’ house and lived there for six months. Then my mother-in-law started to complain about my behavior and began making accusations against me. We separated and I left. I gave birth at my parent’s home and now my child is 3 years old. As I didn’t get a marriage certificate, we don’t have any support or contact [with my former husband's family].”
Legislation designed to discourage bride kidnapping failed in parliament earlier this year.
The bill proposed fining Islamic clerics for blessing marriages without a state registration certificate.