A 15-year-old Afghan girl who was tortured nearly to death by her husband and his family attempted to escape her attackers more than four months ago, but was sent back home by local authorities, it has emerged.
Sahar Gul, a child-bride married off to a soldier called Gulam Sakhi, who then tried to force her into prostitution, is being treated for horrific injuries in a hospital in Kabul after she was rescued last week.
During her ordeal, several of her fingernails were ripped out with pliers and one of her ears was badly burned by an iron. Her husband is now on the run, and her mother-in-law and sister-in-law have been arrested.
Her case has caused an uproar in Afghanistan and Afghan President Hamid Karzai has vowed that those responsible will be punished.
However, disturbing new details about how the local community and authorities responded to her abuse has highlighted the ambivalence many Afghans have over how far women should be able to exercise the most basic legal rights.
“She ran away to her neighbor’s house and told them that her husband was trying to make her become a prostitute,” local community leader Ziaulhaq said. “‘If you are a Muslim, you must tell the government what is happening to me,’ she told them.”
The locals said they did take the case to the authorities. When the police arrived, Sahar’s mother-in-law tried to fight them off, screaming all the while that her son had “bought” the girl, who therefore had to do what she was told.
She appeared to be alluding to the dowry paid by Sakhi’s family, a sum thought to be about US$4,000.
Locals say the family simply promised to stop hurting her. -Ziaulhaq also alleged that bribes were paid to government officials to hush up the affair.
Although she emphatically denied money was paid, Baghlan Province Department of Women’s Affairs Director Rahima Zarifi said she could not remember the details of the case, or why Gul was sent back home.
The abuse resumed and continued for months until a male relative visited. When he found the girl, who had been starved in a locked basement for weeks, Gul was almost unable to speak.
Afghan lawmaker Fauzia Kufi, who campaigns on women’s issues, said that even then, local authorities attempted to resolve the abuse through “traditional means. Basically, they wanted the relative to sit down with his sister’s abusers and work out an agreement,” she said.
Kufi also said there was strong pressure not to publicize the case.
“Many people don’t take these sorts of crimes seriously and don’t think it should be reported,” she said. “Even the local authorities have blamed the Department of Women’s Affairs for not trying to solve it locally between families in the traditional way.”
Horrific abuse of women is still common in Afghanistan, particularly against brides, who can be regarded as chattels by their husbands or are exchanged between families to resolve feuds.
The government is frequently unwilling to enforce laws it has often been forced to pass by the country’s international backers, and the writ of the state often does not run in areas far away from -urban centers.
However, the case of Gul was not in the remote countryside, but in Puli Khumri, an important, mid-sized town that boasts one of the country’s few factories. Kufi also said that local sources told her that Sakhi, despite having a warrant out for his arrest, returned briefly to his home on Sunday night and that locals did not inform the police.