In December 2011, Sahar Gul, a 15-year-old Afghan girl and underage bride, was freed by Afghan police after having been severely tortured for six months by her in-laws in an attempt to force her into prostitution. During her captivity, Sahar had been kept locked in a basement, tortured with hot irons, her fingers broken and fingernails ripped out.
While Sahar’s horrific ordeal sparked justifiable outrage among many Afghans, her agony is all too commonplace in Afghanistan, a country in which violence against women and girls is both pervasive and growing.
The violent abuse used against Afghan females also entails the widespread and socially accepted practice of forced child marriage, a cultural and religious reality that has led to over half of the marriages in Afghanistan involving girls under the age of 16.
So, given that, it’s not surprising to find that in the decade after the ouster of the Taliban from power in 2001, Afghanistan still remains one of the world’s most dangerous places for women. According to the UN’s Gender Inequality Index, Afghanistan ranks as the world’s sixth-worst country for women due to violence — including domestic abuse — sexual harassment, poverty and lack of healthcare.
Moreover, Afghan women and girls — in addition to underage marriage — are also subjected to honor killings and the traditional Afghan practice known as “baad,” whereupon women are given away to pay family debts or settle disputes.
Unfortunately — despite the rise of scores of women’s advocacy groups and the enactment of laws guaranteeing women’s rights — both the Afghan justice system and its patriarchal society remain heavily stacked against Afghan women and girls.
For example, in April 2009 Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed the Shiite Personal Status Law, legislation which applied to Afghanistan’s minority Shiite populace. Provisions in that legislation allowed 14-year-old girls to marry as well as men to rape their wives.
After outcries by Afghan women’s groups that the government was legalizing marital rape, Karzai said the law would be amended to bring it in line with the Afghan constitution, which guarantees equal rights for women.
To that end, the Afghan government enacted later in 2009 the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law which criminalized acts like early or forced marriage and rape.
Despite its passage, however, a UN report in November 2011 found that the EVAW act was rarely enforced, citing as an example the 2,299 crimes reported in 2010, of which only 155 cases, or just 7 percent, were prosecuted.
According to the UN report, “Judicial officials in many parts of the country have begun to use the law — but its use represents a very small percentage of how the government addresses cases of violence against women.”
Of course, it’s not terribly surprising that given the treatment of women in Afghan society the response by Afghanistan’s police and judiciary is to either ignore crimes launched against women or, in most cases, send the women back to their abusers.
Nowhere has that latter point been better demonstrated than in the recent case of Gulnaz, a 19-year-old Afghan girl who was raped by her cousin’s husband and imprisoned in 2009 for “forced adultery.”
After spending two and a half years in jail, during which time she gave birth to a daughter fathered by her defiler, Gulnaz was offered a pardon in December 2011 by Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the condition Gulnaz marry her rapist.
While Karzai’s decision may have engendered outraged disbelief from those in the West its foundation was deeply rooted in Afghan custom and Islamic law. Specifically, Gulnaz’s little girl, having been born in prison, is considered to be illegitimate, a disgrace to her family and, as a consequence, never to be accepted by Afghan society unless her parents marry.
Yet, whether prompted by domestic pressures or by a need to polish Afghanistan’s international image, Karzai graciously released Gulnaz without the precondition she wed her rapist. In a bitter irony for Gulnaz, however, she has now traded the relative safety of the jail cell for a life on the run.
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