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Kidnapped Brides Around the World

By Jennifer Timmons, October 2010

“This practice must be dropped from our society. Any man who tries to force a girl into marriage by such means should think about how he would act if something similar happened to a girl from his family.”

Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, October 2010


When 'cultural values' include abducting women

zulikhan_weddingTake a look at the photo of Zulikhan in her bridal gown. She bears a lost and resigned countenance, not that of a joyful bride celebrating what many young women might consider to be the happiest and most important day of their lives: their wedding day.

She had reason not to smile. Basically, she was waiting to be raped.

She was kidnapped one week and married the next.

An act some people in Chechen culture and other regions of the world – especially those in smaller towns and villages, might consider “romantic”: an innocent young woman swept away by a stranger to live happily ever after. The stuff of fairy tales.

Or a violent method to get married from ancient times.

Or the 21st century.

No horses, wagons, and bandits here. That's old school.

Today, bride kidnapping involves cars or taxi's, and a young man driving about town with his male friends and relatives to help him hunt for a pretty young woman who suits his imagination, then violently abducts her, holds her down to keep her from escaping, and speeds away to an unknown town and strangers.

Strangers who may include the women of the kidnapper's family to put on a show of welcoming the frightened woman into their family as the new bride, and pressuring her to accept her fate, because now, she has been in a male stranger' s house.

Why resist? To go back will mean bringing social stigma upon her parents, as a “soiled” woman.

Forget that she may have had big dreams and was studying in college to reach beyond her full potential as a human being.

“It's Our Tradition”

Last summer, on her way home from college in the Chechen capital Grozny, Zulikhan was snatched off the street and bundled into a car by a man she barely knew.

Immediately after the wedding, her husband took her to Pavlodar in northern Kazakhstan, and installed her in a couple of sparsely furnished rooms above his parents' flat.

Zulikhan was now nearly 3,100 miles (5,000km) from home in Kazakhstan, with a stranger who kidnapped her because he wanted a wife.

A cousin of the groom defended the kidnapping to BBC reporter Lucy Ash:

"It's the law of our grandfathers," he said. "We have to respect our Chechen traditions."

A Place for Bride Hunting

The BBC and other sources report that  over the years, large numbers of Chechens have fled Chechnya and are making lives elsewhere. Many have chosen to leave, but others have been given no choice.

It wasn't so long ago – 1944, when Stalin deported the entire Chechen population from the Caucasus to Central Asia. Although survivors were allowed to return to the Caucasus after Stalin's death, the deportation left deep scars which helped fuel Chechen separatism a generation later.

Two wars with Russia for independence in the 1990's did not help matters.

Thousands of people fled. Some remain in Kazakhstan, like Zulikhan's in-laws, uncomfortable with periodic reports of violence they hear from their friends who live in Chechnya, and worried about news of mysterious murders of loved ones, human rights activists, and others whose perpetrators are never found and prosecuted.

Not a very safe place to live perhaps, but a great place to visit for hunting and capturing a bride.

"I told him I hated him," she said, but he smiled. "It doesn't matter if you love me or hate me," he told her calmly. "I want you, and you are going to be my wife."

-exchange between kidnapper and his 18 year old bride-to-be.

Family Honour or Blood Feud

The Globe and Mail report that in Chechnya and neighboring Ingushetia, violent bride abductions are staged nearly every week in the mountain-ringed, southern Russian republics known as the North Caucasus.

During the spring wedding season, it can happen every day.

Young women are snatched from bus stops, on their way home from school, and sometimes out of their own yards.

Popular YouTube postings show shocking video clips of men dragging screaming young women while their books, purses and cellphones are scattered about from the commotion.

Chechen magazine editor Lula Jumalaeva noted that two wars have left a dire shortage of men.

“Unmarried women have no status in the society and many are desperate to marry, “ she said. “With so few men, their odds are low of securing husbands of their choosing. If seized, they may feel pressure to marry the captor, especially if his family is suitable.”

One in five Chechen marriages begins when a girl is snatched off the street and forced into a car by her future groom and his accomplices, according to some estimates.

The women are forced to marry their kidnappers to preserve the family honor and avoid triggering a blood feud.

On a brighter note, last October 2010, The southern Russian republic of Chechnya  introduced a fine of 1 million rubles ($33,400) for bride kidnapping.


Up to one third of ethnic Kyrgyz women are kidnapped brides

Gulzat is a woman who at 18, agreed to marry her abducting neighbor, Azamat, whom she hardly knew.

“I felt something was wrong. Suddenly two cars came back. In the bright lights I couldn’t see anything, but I understood that they had come to kidnap me. Horrified I started screaming. Two of the boys closed my mouth with their hands and carried me into the car. I was screaming, yelling, crying, shouting, kicking, hitting … but boys were too strong.”

In an instant, her dreams of becoming a journalist and marrying her boyfriend were shattered.

As soon as she gave her consent, an imam was immediately brought to the house to bless the marriage with the Islamic Sharia law.

Ten years later, Gulzat is still married to Azamat and they have a son. She indicated feeling very sad about the marriage, and said that she and her husband “still treat each other like strangers,”

Kyrgyz-kidnapped-womenKyrgyzstan is the country with the highest prevalence of bride kidnapping. Up to one-third of all ethnic Kyrgyz women in Kyrgyzstan are kidnapped brides.

Ala kachuu ("grab and run")

Ala kachuu is the act of abducting a woman to marry her.

It includes a variety of actions ranging from elopement or staged abduction for consensual marriage to violent non-consensual kidnapping.

“Kidnapping” refers to the non-consensual variety, which typically involves a young man and his friends taking a young woman by deception, or force, to the home of his parents or a near-relative.

The kidnapped woman is held in a room until his female relatives convince her to put on the white marriage scarf or shawl, called a jooluk, a symbol of her submission. Many women fight fiercely, but about 80 percent of those kidnapped eventually relent.

If necessary she is kept over night and sometimes raped, and is thus threatened by the shame of no longer being a pure woman.

Kyrgyz men say they snatch women because it is easier than courtship and cheaper than paying the standard "bride price," which can be as much as $800 plus a cow.

Although common in Kyrgyzstan, bride-kidnapping is illegal - and yet the law is unenforced by both the government and the Sharia law.

Under Kyrgyz Criminal Code Article 155, “forcing a woman to marry or to continue a marriage or kidnapping her in order to marry without her consent” is illegal and punishable by three years in prison.

Shelter and Hope

The Kyz-Kogon Institute, a shelter for kidnapped girls established in 2005, organizes seminars and distributes brochures with legal information on the prohibition of bride kidnapping, myths about traditional customs, and contact information for crisis centers.

The shelter also informs parents and potential abductors that kidnapping is illegal and encourages parents not to advocate forced marriages to their children.


"I didn't want him. His sister-in-law locked me in with him. I refused him. But he raped me... When I escaped they caught me and beat me up. Later I drank pesticide and I was sent to hospital."  – Yang Xiu Ping, Freed Woman

Kidnapped Brides are Cheaper than a Wedding

Yang Xiu Ping, a woman featured in Insight News TV's report on kidnapped brides in China,  was abducted at 16.

She left her rural Sichuan village to travel to Chengdu, the regional metropolis, in search of work. At the labor market on Chengdu's Nine Eye Bridge she was abducted, before being trafficked and sold. It's estimated that 30 women go missing from the Nine Eye Bridge labor market every day.

She was freed years later by a man whose business it is to track down abducted women. She was lucky.

But there are still thousands of young women who are being kidnapped and sold as wives to lonely men in China.

Wife selling used to be regarded as an ancient custom, and outlawed by late Communist Party Leader Mao Zedong, who ordered the keeping of marriage records partly to discourage the practice.

Signs used to be posted in some places that read:

"It is Strictly Forbidden to Kidnap and Sell Women and Girls; This Activity Will Be Strictly Prosecuted."

After Mao's death, the liberalization  of China, and its rising economy, kidnapping women for bride selling returned with increasing frequency.

And not just young women from China, but also girls and women from North Korea, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam are kidnapped, taken to China, and sold as brides.

About 20,000 girls and women are abducted and sold into marriage every year; however, the  government admits this is a small percentage of all the women abducted and sold.

Most of the victims are girls and women between 13 and 24. It is not uncommon for foreigners who visit small village to be offered a teenage bride.

"I forgot how to laugh or cry. Each time I did, his family would beat me, They treated me like a slave doing hard labor. Everyone knew about me in the village, but when I protested and ran away, I was caught and beaten. I didn't try again."

woman who was kidnapped when she 12 and sold to a 30-year-old peasant.

The darker side of affluence

A leading economist has said that the trade is a dark manifestation of China's new affluence and market-driven economy.

Getting married is now very expensive: weddings are often lavish affairs, and in addition, many husbands have to pay a bride price: a fee demanded by the wife's parents.

Buying a kidnapped bride costs a mere one tenth of the expense of a wedding.

Rural wedding and gifts to the in-laws now run around $1,200 while a bride can be bought for a little as $250.

If a wife flees the husband usually receives more sympathy than the wife.

"My mother and I kept very tight watch at first. But she settled down quickly and showed no sign of running away. We had a baby boy a year later."

– 38-year-old farmer in Hebei, who paid $450 for his wife.

Some girls are lured away from their homes with promises of high-paying, out-of-town jobs by traders who often take the women's money and identity papers "for safekeeping" so they don't attempt to flee.

Others still are abducted by gangs who drug and rape them before taking them hundreds of miles from their homes to be sold at rural marriage markets. Some are abducted in the    southern province of  Guangdong and then taken over 2,000 miles away to far western Xinjiang Province.

"I used to trick them, make them my girlfriend. Tell them 'we're going on a tour together' - and then I sold them."

– former kidnapper from Sichuan

In 2008, China announced plans to tackle the problem through programs on the grassroots level and websites that run the names and pictures of victims.

The grassroots program focuses on closing down unlicensed job and marriage agencies, which often lure women and children into the sex trade and forced labor.

Toddler Brides

chinesegirVery young girls have become a hot commodity in China.

According to a recent report in the British Medical Journal, 124 boys are born for every 100 girls in the country as a whole, and in one province the figure has risen to 192.  This is largely due to China's one-child policy and a cultural preference for sons over daughters.

Many girls as young as two – and even infants,  are bought by farmers who want wives for their small sons when they come of age, or by men who want a child bride without a dowry, say police and the state media.

The public security ministry says that between 2,000 and 3,000 children and young women are kidnapped every year, but the state-controlled newspapers have put the figure as high as 20,000. Only a handful of cases are solved.

“I can’t eat. My wife cries every night. Our son, who’s one, has been sick since his sister vanished and now he’s in hospital”

- Li Faming, 35, father (permitted a second child because  the first was a daughter.)

Parents across China have defied the authorities’ instinctive repression of any mass campaign by signing up to a website whose name means “baby come home”.

No fewer than 2,000 sets of parents have posted details of their missing children. Four hundred children have also registered to look for their families. But the site has claimed only seven successes in two years.

In southern Yunnan  province, police found that babies were being raised for sale and families were acting as brokers for other peasants who wanted to sell off “surplus” infants.

Campaigners frustrated with police and politicians have begun to demand harsh measures against the people who keep it going: the child buyers.

“They are at the root of the problem,” said Zhang Baoyan, director of the baby-come-home website, in an interview with the China Daily.


The silence and shame of being kidnapped and raped

"If it hadn't happened to me ... I would have been educated and got my own work and lived my own life. I wish to God that had happened."

That is what Nurame, a woman from Ethiopia said on reflection of the day she was kidnapped and raped.

After forty years of silence on the matter.

Because her captor (husband) told her good women don't talk of such things.

She was only eight years old when she awoke to voices in the's voices...which turned out to be 10 men, shouting over her father.

Nurame had heard whispers of an impending marriage for a girl her age – though her name wasn't mentioned, yet she suspected what was about to happen. She fled.

But there were too many men; one of them caught her, and they brought her to her future husband's home, held down in front of his family, and raped her. The next morning, she was taken to be married, and she signed the papers in a daze.

She had only one thought in her mind: escape. And she waited for the right moment to flee.

Her husband left her alone after a few days, and she grabbed the chance, running barefoot for miles, and weeping with joy when she saw her family.

Instead, she was told to go back to her new husband.

“ father told me that now I had had sex with him, nobody else would want me because I was ruined goods, and I had to go back to him and be a good wife,"

Her mother agreed.

When asked how she would feel if one of her daughters were abducted, Nurame replied, "I would find her. I would get her back."

Bridal kidnapping is not specific to any one religion

Ethiopian-women2003 – the last year for which statistics are available – the National Committee on Traditional Practices of Ethiopia found that 69 per cent of marriages begin like Nurame's, with the triple-whammy of abduction, rape, and a forced signature.

In a country with a mixture of Protestant, Catholic and Muslim, all religions practice it equally.

Bridal abductions have been technically illegal since 2005, but, outside the capital, Addis Ababa, the law is interpreted very loosely by the police and judges.

Rwanda and Kenya join Ethiopia, where bride kidnapping often takes the form of abduction followed by rape.

Bride-kidnapping is prevalent in areas of Rwanda and is not specifically outlawed in Rwanda, though violent abductions are punishable as rape.

The man may offer a cow, money, or other goods as restitution to his bride's family.

Forced marriages continue to be a problem for young girls in Kenya.

The US State Department reports that children and young teen-aged girls (aged ten and up) are sometimes married to men two decades or more their seniors.

The "bride" is then coerced through the stigma of pregnancy and rape to marry her abductor.



Bride kidnapping has been a recurring method of securing a wife among the Tzeltal community, a Mayan tribe in Chiapas, Mexico

In the Tzeltal tradition, a girl is kidnapped by the groom, possibly in concert with his friends. She is generally taken to the mountains and raped.

The abductor and his future bride often then stay with a relative until the bride's father's anger has reportedly subsided. At that point, the abductor will return to the bride's house to negotiate a bride-price, bringing with him the bride and traditional gifts such as rum.


"I felt that because of what he had done to me, I was marked. I wasn't the same. My personal value had dropped. I was nothing. Another person could never love me."

Elizabeth-SmartIn December 2010, Brian David Mitchell was convicted of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart and subjecting her to nine months of sexual and mental torture that included repeated rapes, forced consumption of drugs, and frequent threats to kill her.

All he wanted was another “wife”.

Smart, now 23, was 14 when she was kidnapped from her bed in Utah. She has said she was forced to “marry” Mitchell in an impromptu ceremony shortly after the kidnapping.

She testified that her kidnapper had grandiose religious illusions, referring to himself as the “Davidic King” or the “one mighty and strong”. Many of the prayers he said out loud were for God to make Smart “perform her wifely duties.”

He would say, 'Please bless me,' that I would be able to rise to the occasion and fulfill my wifely duties. That is about the farthest thing from my prayers.

She was made to wear a veil in public, and was too terrified to say anything, let alone identify herself, under threats from Mitchell. This turned out to be an effective thwart to law enforcement and a few concerned citizens who were suspicious of her appearance and behavior.

Elizabeth Smart contributed to her rescue after Mitchell took them to California. She told Mitchell that God wanted them to return to Salt Lake City and  suggested he pray on it, and said he could probably kidnap another wife from a Mormon camp for girls in the area.

Mitchell, she said, prayed about her suggestion and decided to return to Salt Lake City, where Smart was eventually discovered and rescued.

She is currently living in France, fulfilling Mormon missionary work.

Elizabeth Smart is fortunate that she was rescued and that law enforcement was on her side.

Many  kidnapped brides have nowhere to turn.

“When there is no alternative, you somehow accept this as all you will get. In that situation, many women accept their situation as God-given, not man-made."  – Activist in Ethiopia



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