In the remote reaches of Kyrgyzstan, where legal services are hitherto nearly non-existent, a group of lawyers is bridging the urban-rural divide to reach vulnerable women. Through the Ministry of Justice’s Bus of Solidarity, lawyers, social workers, and other professionals take regular van trips to poverty-stricken, rural areas of the country, offering free legal advice on a range of matters. They go where other lawyers do not, leaving the relative affluence of urban centers such as Bishkek, the capital, to travel to the mountains which house two-thirds of Kyrgyzstan’s population. While they help men and women alike on a spectrum of legal issues, they are especially vital in empowering and protecting women. Moreover, the bus presents a uniquely adaptable, flexible approach to addressing the intersections of rural poverty, gender equality, and law.
Though women are equal under Kyrgyz law, they face legal and economic disenfranchisement in practice, especially in rural areas. A host of factors, including a lack of awareness of their rights, lack of access to legal systems, educational gender gaps, the on average young age of marriage, and the preeminence of informal village councils over the government translate to a structural patriarchy. The issue is particularly acute in the area of land rights.
In just a century, Kyrgyzstan has seen three major land systems. Through the beginning of the 20th century, Kyrgyzstan continued the centuries-old tradition of nomadic herding that once stretched across Eurasia. Though Russia conquered the Khanate of Kokand, an Uzbek state that contained the present-day Kyrgyz Republic in 1876, the traditional Kyrgyz way of life continued until the 1920s and the advent of communist rule. Soviet land reforms organized large, state-owned farms, disrupting not only power dynamics but the entire system of land ownership, or rather lack thereof.
Later, the dissolution of Soviet rule pummeled Kyrgyzstan into decades of change and instability. Come the 1991 break up of the Soviet Union and Kyrgyz independence, the infant nation sweepingly redistributed rural land by granting it to rural residents. Each rural family was required to hold an equal-sized patch of land per family member, including children. For the first time in modern Kyrgyz history, informally-held land was registered with some semblance of private property: While the state owns the land, citizens can hold 99-year property rights. However, even though each citizen had the right to an equal patch of land, the decentralized local implementation produced inconsistencies related to land distribution, title, and inheritance.
While this third era of Kyrgyz land tenure purported to give women equal rights, in practice it generated worse conditions for women than Soviet rule. Without central government oversight, new and seemingly equitable private land tenure was hijacked, and the decentralized practice of land registration soon began to follow traditional customs. Many families registered land under a male head of household, leaving women essentially landless. Female landlessness, however, does not end there. Despite legal equality, women own just 9 percent of arable land in Kyrgyzstan. In comparison, the only other post-Soviet Central Asian state for which data is available, Uzbekistan, has 22.3 percent female land and property ownership.
The patriarchal land culture has affected generations since the citizens of 1991, with women facing stigma for holding land shares separate from their families. This especially affects women coming of age, marrying, or divorcing. When girls grow up and leave their families’ farms, often to marry, they customarily also leave the plot of land they were given by the state at birth to become part of the family estate. Thus, each daughter inevitably only grows the inheritance of her brothers, eventually giving them the land she rightfully owns.
Divorce is especially tricky, as though women have legal rights to a share of their land, doing so would require going to court–a process known to take years in Kyrgyzstan’s legal bureaucracy. Though courts tend to rule in favor of women, many women do not know their legal rights to begin with. This is shown in a 2014 United Nations Development Programme study showing if and when Kyrgyz women would seek help in a legal situation. Eighty-one percent of Kyrgyz women said they would not seek help in the case of a ‘rights infringement.’ The issue is one of both poverty and access, with some rural regions fully lacking lawyers. In the same UNDP study, only 18.3 percent of women answered yes to a question asking if they would be able to contact a “qualified civil law specialist in [their] village/town” if necessary. This can be explained in large part by the country’s deep urban-rural economic disparities, with higher-paid workers such as lawyers clustered in a few cities that hold a minority of the population.
This is where the Bus of Solidarity comes in–it is a portable solution to reaching those left out by the Kyrgyz legal system. In areas where justice is often delegated to informal local councils of elders, who hold no legal power, the Bus of Solidarity empowers women to seek legal alternatives. With the stigma attached to a woman claiming an inheritance or settling a divorce, many women fear judgment and would prefer to enter the secular, equal legal system, if only they were able to. While the 2014 UNDP study asked women where, if at all, they would seek help for six types of legal problems: land disputes (non-marital or inheritance), labor disputes, domestic violence, inheritance disputes, divorce/marital land disputes, and violence against children. A majority of women chose courts only in inheritance and divorce/marital disputes, at rates of 67.4 percent and 77.9 percent, respectively. The relative trust in the court system shows a distrust in local institutions and police. In these situations, the lawyers who work for the Bus of Solidarity can offer expertise and guidance for women seeking to navigate an unfamiliar and uncomfortable legal system. Covering everything from alimony to market stalls, the Bus of Solidarity worked on over 7,000 cases from its 2016 start through the end of 2018.
The Bus of Solidarity is a model for adaptable, scalable solutions to address urban-rural inequities in development. Foreign aid abounds across the developing world, but much of it is done without careful consideration of existing infrastructure and indigenous autonomy. In contrast, the Bus of Solidarity is part of a unique national-foreign-multilateral partnership to increase access to justice. It is administered by the Kyrgyz Republic’s Legal Advocacy Department of the Ministry of Justice, financed by the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and supported by the UNDP. Moreover, in a region whose discourse on development is dominated by the construction of glittering, futuristic capital cities like Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) and Ashgabat, rural issues are often ignored. Though government officials flaunt and celebrate the laws that promote gender equality, many institutional efforts fall flat in practice. Equal laws mean little if they are not enforced or commonly known.
Thus, the Bus of Solidarity offers a practical solution in a space dominated by ideology and legal reform. Moreover, while it could be criticized as a stopgap and certainly would not fully address the problems of gender and land rights, it utilizes the existing legal infrastructure to create a tangible impact. It builds bridges between an inaccessible legal system and the people who need it the most. Requiring not much more than lawyers, a van, and community centers at which to stop, it is quickly replicable and could be adapted for any country with a decent road system. The tangibility of the change it produces should be seen as a lesson for governments and NGOs across the world: They can talk about women’s equality and legislate, but they cannot change anything (at least in the short term) without getting on the ground and advocating for women within the bounds of the social structures they live in, rather than the ideal, equal structures of which activists dream. As the Bus of Solidarity shows, equality in legislation is important as a framework, but it is equality in practice that truly matters to a society’s most vulnerable.