BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan—The president of Kyrgyzstan has approved legislation toughening the penalty for the broadly practiced custom of bride-kidnapping.

President Almazbek Atamabyev's office said in a statement on its website Saturday that sentences for forcing women into marriage against their will could now range up to 10 years.

The offense was previously punishable by a maximum three-year prison term.

Although illegal, the practice of snatching potential brides, often under the age of 18, off the street is widely tolerated in the former Soviet Central Asian nation.

Proponents of bride-kidnapping argue that it is an integral part of nomadic Kyrgyz culture, but some academics argue that the practice has been adopted relatively recently in history.

One leading motivation is believed to be the desire to avoid the cost of onerous dowries.