These White Sheets Are a Chilling Reminder of What Happens to Every 17th Girl in Kyrgyzstan

Leo Burnett Moscow raises awareness of bride kidnapping

White sheets representing curtains called 'koshogos' were hung across Bishkek to highlight how the curtains are used in forced marriages. Leo Burnett Moscow
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The concept of bride kidnapping may seem alien to Americans, but in some parts of the world it’s an ancient custom that, even though illegal, persists to this day.

One of those areas is Central Asia, where, in the 12th century, Genghis Khan’s own mother was kidnapped shortly after her first wedding and forced to marry the future ruler’s father. The longstanding practice was eventually banned under Soviet rule in the region, but international women’s rights advocates say it has re-emerged in several countries over recent decades. And local laws aimed at illegalizing such forced marriages have met with mixed results.

Now an ad agency and news site have found a haunting way of raising awareness of the prevalence of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, a nation of 6 million located between China and Kazakhstan.

Kyrgyzstani news outlet and agency Leo Burnett Moscow have launched a campaign to put a spotlight on “ala kachuu,” a bride-kidnapping practice that means “grab and run.”

The stark visual being used for the campaign is a white sheet, representing a curtain called a “koshogo.” According to the campaign, kidnapped women and girls are forced to sit behind such a curtain in the kidnapper’s family home, and by doing so the victims are considered to have agreed to be married.

The campaign says every 17th girl in Kyrgyzstan faces this type of abduction. The campaign tells real stories of women who’ve been abducted for marriage, both through a dedicated website and through the campaign that hung white sheets across the capital city of Bishkek. Hung from doorways and in public locations on Nov. 30, text on the sheets described women’s experiences with abduction and the extent of the problem.

Part of the urgency behind the campaign is the high-profile murder of Burulai Turdaaly Kyzy, a 20-year-old woman stabbed to death when police left her alone in a room with the man who twice tried to abduct her. The awareness campaign accuses police of being reluctant to investigate bride kidnappings and notes that 94 percent of the country’s police officers are men.

Ala kachuu has been illegal in Kyrgyzstan for five years, but the campaign says the law has largely gone unenforced. In that time, according to the campaign, only 895 crime statements were registered by police, with just 18 percent becoming criminal cases. Only 28 cases have made it to court.

@griner David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."