Saturday, 7 January 2012
Afghan child bride had escaped torturers but was sent back
A 15-year-old Afghan girl who was nearly tortured 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 uproar in Afghanistan and Hamid Karzai, the country's president, has vowed that those responsible will be punished.
But 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 neighbour's house and told them that her husband was trying to make her become a prostitute," said local community leader Ziaulhaq. " '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 around £2,700.
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, Rahima Zarifi, the women's affairs chief in Baghlan province, 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.
Fauzia Kufi, an MP 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 claims there was strong pressure not to publicise 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 for 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 in order 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 centres.
However, the case of Gul was not in the remote countryside but in Puli Khumri, an important, mid-sized town which boasts one of the country's few factories. Kufi also claimed 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.
The claim is strongly denied by community leaders who say they were appalled by the crimes of the family and never attempted a low-key, traditional mediation between the parties.
Abdullah Fahim, a senior adviser to the minister of public health, said the case was part of the "bitter reality" of Afghanistan.
"We have several cases like this, especially in remote parts of the country where there is not a strong attitude to women's rights," he said.
He added that the ministry had dedicated a team of psychiatrists to the girl: "Her physical wounds are getting better day by day, but we are very concerned about her mental condition because she has been tortured for a long period of time."
The law on the elimination of violence against women was passed more than two years ago and criminalised many abuses for the first time, including domestic violence and child marriage.
But a recent UN report found only a small percentage of reported crimes against women are pursued by the Afghan government.
Between March 2010 and March 2011, prosecutors opened 594 investigations involving crimes under the law – just 26% of the incidents registered by the Afghan human rights commission.