The role of technology in intimate partner abuse is gaining recognition around the world, with studies revealing that 17% and 20% of domestic violence victims in Australia and the United States, respectively, also suffered from online stalking, harassment-by-text, and other forms of technology-facilitated violence by their abusive partner. As of 2018, researchers had identified over 200 apps that were marketed in the U.S. on the basis of their capacity to secretly monitor an intimate partner’s location, track her texts, log her keystrokes, and perform other stalking functions on her mobile phone.

Technology’s role in intimate partner abuse has only started to garner attention from academic, policy, and advocacy groups in the U.S., Australia, and Europe over the past 2 or 3 years. In the Kyrgyz Republic, it is almost wholly unrecognized and undiscussed. At For Families, we’re joining sufferers, technology companies, and lawyers to raise awareness of the urgent need to address technology-facilitated IPV in the Kyrgyz Republic and take steps to prevent it.

What is “technology-facilitated intimate partner violence?”

Intimate partner violence [IPV] is “any behavior within an intimate relationship that causes physical, psychological, or sexual harm to those in the relationship.” It can include not only physical violence such as slapping or hitting and sexual violence such as rape, but also emotional abuse (insulting, belittling, or humiliating a partner) and controlling behaviors such as monitoring a person’s movements, isolating her from family and friends, or restricting her access to employment, education, and finances.

Technology-facilitated IPV is any of the above forms of violence committed via or made easier by information communication technology, such as mobile phones, SMS texts, the internet, and social media outlets such as Facebook, WhatsApp, and others. It can take the form of online or Spyware-facilitated stalking, threatening or abusive emails and texts, and blackmail or stalking committed on social media sites, among other forms.

What is the impact of technology-facilitated intimate partner violence in the Kyrgyz Republic?

Technology-facilitated IPV can have a devastating effect on its victim’s freedom, psychological well-being, and emotional health. This is most evident in the descriptions of those who have suffered such violence directly [note that all names have been changed to protect the speakers’ anonymity]:

My husband put an app on my phone so my camera turns on whenever he calls. It turns on even if I don’t pick up. He calls constantly to make sure I’m not meeting my friends. He won’t let me go out unless I tell him where I’m going, and then he’ll call to make sure I didn’t lie about where I am. If I’m meeting someone he doesn’t like or am somewhere I didn’t say, then there are big problems when I get home. But at least this way I’m allowed to go out. I don’t know if I’d have permission to go out if he couldn’t check on me like this.

– Rezada, Bishkek, 2017

As Rezada’s story illustrates, mobile phones provide an unparalleled opportunity for stalking and the emotional abuse that it entails. Because we carry our mobile phones wherever we go, they give stalkers minute-to-minute data on where we are, who we’re with, and what we’re doing. And while Rezada is aware of her husband’s stalking (indeed, this awareness appears to be part of his strategy to control her), other victims may not know until it’s too late.

Our tendency to carry mobile phones everywhere we go can also intensify the emotional pain caused by technology-facilitated abuse and intimidation, as described by Anara:

I left our home to visit my mother in Bishkek. Once I got there, he started texting saying never to come back, that he was taking the children. He started threatening me and swearing at me and saying if I came back he would kill me. He texts all the time – I can’t get away from it. He won’t let me speak to the kids on the phone, all he does is text these threats every day.

– Anara, talking about her husband, Bishkek, 2018

Anara’s comments point to how technology makes harassment and intimidation easier, as well as the type of stalking that Rezada suffers. Like Anara, many victims of technology-facilitated IPV note that aggressive, threatening, and harassing texts can rob them of any sense of security or freedom. And because the texts can reach them wherever they are and whatever they are doing, there feel that there are no safe spaces where they can escape from the emotional abuse. Anara described further that not only did her husband’s texts make her frightened for herself; they were also a constant reminder that she was not able to speak with her children, couldn’t ask them if they were ok, and couldn’t comfort them even though she was far away.

Despite the harm it causes, technology-facilitated intimate partner violence is often played-down by victims, authorities, and bystanders. A common refrain is that ‘because the perpetrator is physically distant from the victim, the threat is not serious’. In the Kyrgyz Republic, where young women face pressure to marry starting from the age of 20, women’s relatives, friends, and acquaintances may push them to stay in relationships even where there is technology-facilitated IPV. Indeed, these well-meaning bystanders (and the victims themselves) may believe that the harassment is ‘romantic’ – reflecting a real attachment, concern, and love – and will decrease once a couple gets married. As Baktygul describes,

He’s very controlling. He texts 8 or 9 times a day asking where I am, what I’m doing, why I don’t respond to him. [My employer] has a schedule of meetings that’s available online – he found the schedule, so he knows when I’m in meetings and when I’m not and when I should respond right away and when I can’t. I can tell this relationship isn’t good for me. But no one understands why I don’t marry him, my family thinks I’m crazy for not marrying.

– Baktygul, Bishkek, 2018

Lawyers in the Kyrgyz Republic have noted that they have seen an increase not only in the number of  divorce cases where technology-facilitated stalking, harassment, and threats are involved – similar to the cases of Rezada, Anara, and Baktygul – but also in alimony cases where women’s ex-partners threaten to post intimate pictures of and private information about their ex-wives on social media unless those women agree not to seek financial support after divorce. This technology-facilitated blackmail is but one more example of the insidious ways that communications technologies can be used to control victims and impede their access to justice.

What is the scale of technology-facilitated intimate partner violence in the Kyrgyz Republic?

Unfortunately, no studies have been conducted on technology-facilitated IPV in the Kyrgyz Republic. Extrapolating from research conducted in the US and Australia, where roughly 20% of domestic violence victims have also suffered technology-facilitated intimate partner violence, anywhere from 1,400 to 140,000 women in the Kyrgyz Republic could be expected to have suffered technology-facilitated intimate partner violence (a wide margin indeed!).

The reason that this range of potential victims of technology-facilitated IPV is so wide is that data on domestic violence in the Kyrgyz Republic is itself inconclusive and variable. In 2016, some 7,053 cases of family violence were officially registered in the Kyrgyz Republic (Women and Men Survey [hereinafter: WMS], 113), 20% of which is 1,400 potential victims of technology-facilitated IPV. However, one in four women who were ever married in the Kyrgyz Republic have reported suffering physical violence,  commonly at the hands of their spouses (in 67% of cases) or ex-spouses (26% of cases) (2012 Demographic and Health Survey [hereinafter: DHS], 245, 249). Given that 98.5% of Kyrgyzstani women have been married at least once by the time they reach 50 and the female population is roughly 3 million, some 740,000 women (or 25% of ever-married women) will have suffered physical intimate partner violence by the time they are 50. Extrapolating, some 20% of these women – or roughly 140,000 to 150,000 – will have suffered technology-facilitated intimate partner violence. Meanwhile, the vast majority of married women in the Kyrgyz Republic experience an array of controlling or abusive behaviors: 71% undergo jealousy or anger from their husbands if they talk to other men, 69% have husbands who insist on knowing where they are are all times, and 14% are not permitted by their husbands to meet with female friends (DHS, 253), all of which lend themselves to technology-facilitated intimate partner violence.

The lack of reliable information on sufferers of technology-facilitated IPV in the Kyrgyz Republic points to an urgent need to study the prevalence, forms, causes, and consequences of such violence. Such information is key to devising effective policy interventions and direct services to victims.

What can I do if I think a family member or friend is suffering from technology-facilitated intimate partner violence?

If you are worried that a loved one or friend is experiencing technology-facilitated IPV, you should strive to support and help them while respecting their agency and right to make decisions for themselves. Some concrete ways you can support them include:

  1. Ask your friend or loved one what support she or he needs, and help her or him receive that support if you can;
  2. Check in frequently and ask how she or he is doing. But be aware that her or his devices may be monitored and thus your attempts to stay in touch could elicit violence from the abusive partner. Ask how she or he prefers to be contacted when you are meeting face to face (and preferably with any potentially Spyware infected devices out of hearing range);
  3. If you are connected with this friend or loved one on social media, refrain from posting images of or information about them online or tagging them in any events or photos. This could give their abusive partner information that they do not want made public;
  4. Check the privacy settings on your own accounts and try to limit the amount of your content that the abusive partner can see.

These tips are borrowed from SmartSafe. Additional ideas and information can be accessed at their website by clicking here.

What is For Families doing about technology-facilitated intimate partner violence?

For Families is working to prevent technology-facilitated IPV in the Kyrgyz Republic. Our current work includes:

  • Gathering case studies on technology-facilitated intimate partner violence to better understand its forms, causes, and consequences;
    • These are to be the basis of a broader study we plan to better assess the prevalence of technology-facilitated IPV across the country;
  • Raising awareness among lawyers of the risks of technology-facilitated intimate partner violence, what they can do to help clients who suffer from such abuse, and sharing best practices in electronic communications to minimize the risk that they expose their clients to further abuse;
    • We are developing a toolkit for lawyers to integrate into their work with domestic violence victims, including best practices when it comes to technology-facilitated IPV. This toolkit and related online resources will be the backbone of workshop sessions for lawyers on these topics;
  • Sharing information about international best-practices in protecting mobile phones, computers, and other electronic devices from Spyware and what to do if you think your device has been infected;
  • Recommending and lobbying for concrete changes to the legal-normative framework of the Kyrgyz Republic including, for example, the passage of a criminal sanction for stalking – which is not recognized as a criminal or administrative offense in the current laws of the Kyrgyz Republic.

Do you have more ideas for how we can stop technology-facilitated intimate partner violence in the Kyrgyz Republic? Get in touch with us at info@forfamilieskg.org or share your ideas in the comments section below – we would love to hear from you!