What future for Afghan woman jailed for being raped?

Posted on January 14, 2012


Two high profile cases of violence have sparked domestic and international outcry over the treatment of Afghan women, but campaigners fear a winding down of the military campaign will mean the international community will no longer be interested.

Gulnaz gave birth to her daughter, Moska, in jail

Outside it was a gloriously sunny winter’s day. The mountains that loom above the city silhouetted against a cloudless blue sky. But inside the house was dark and the curtains drawn, so that the neighbours could not see in.

This was the safe house in Kabul where Gulnaz and her child had found refuge. The women there asked not to be identified in case their house was burnt down.

Just 21, Gulnaz had been released that week from prison, where she had given birth to her daughter Moska. Gulnaz seemed younger than her years, but she held my gaze almost defiantly as she told her story.

She had been imprisoned in a Kabul women’s jail after her cousin’s husband raped her.

The crime came to light when the unmarried Gulnaz became pregnant.

The police came and arrested both Gulnaz and her attacker. Under Afghan law she too was found guilty of a crime known as “adultery by force”, with her sentence increased on appeal to 12 years.

When the case aroused condemnation abroad, President Hamid Karzai intervened and Gulnaz was pardoned.

Looking bewildered at her sudden freedom, she told me all she wanted was to go home to her family. In order to do that, she was prepared to marry the man who raped her – otherwise their families would be enemies.

The problem for Gulnaz is that if her attacker will not marry her – or cannot come up with a substantial dowry – the “stain” on her family’s honour will remain, perhaps with lethal consequences for Gulnaz and her child. That may mean she can never go home.

For a single mother, unskilled and unqualified, there are few ways for a woman to survive in Afghanistan without family support.

An American lawyer in Kabul, Kim Motley, has taken up Gulnaz’s case. She is trying to raise money for her to fund a new life, somehow, somewhere, if Gulnaz cannot go home.

Rescued from violence

I was still wondering what would happen to her when we went to meet 15-year-old Sahar Gul, as she lay in a hospital bed recovering from her injuries, too traumatised to talk.

Sahar Gul Sahar’s injuries caused public outcry in Afghanistan

Married off to a 30-year-old man for a dowry of about $4,500 (£3,000), Sahar had been kept locked in a cellar for several months, starved and tortured by her husband and his family. It is still not really clear why.

Sahar may not have been able to speak, but her injuries did.

Burns to her arm and her fragile body, a swollen black eye, clumps of hair torn out. One small hand was scarred, where her fingernail had been pulled out.

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Tradition and family or community honour is often seen as more important than an individual’s misery or misfortune”

The abuse aroused public indignation in Afghanistan, as well as horror abroad.

But Sahar was perhaps, in a strange way, lucky.

She did not run away from a violent marriage, as some Afghan brides have, but was instead rescued from it by police. So she cannot be found guilty of what might otherwise be deemed a “moral crime”, as other young Afghan women have been.

Both Sahar and Gulnaz’s stories are extreme. But they made me wonder how many other women in Afghanistan still suffer in silence, 10 years after the fall of the Taliban.

There are laws banning violence against women, but enforcing them is hard. Tradition and family or community honour is often seen as more important than an individual’s misery or misfortune.

Poverty and lack of education also mean under-age marriage remains common.

When Sahar did try to escape her torturers, it was apparently the neighbours who brought her back to them, before the police intervened.

Sima Samar, Head of Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission Dr Samar is concerned about the future of women’s rights in Afghanistan

In a quiet, book-lined office in Kabul – a world away from the controlled chaos of the hospital and the dimly-lit safe house – I asked the head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission what she thought.

A no-nonsense woman with steely grey hair, Dr Sima Samar has long risked her own life to speak out for the principles she believes in, equality and justice.

Her answer was clear: She and her colleagues in Afghanistan will carry on fighting to improve the lives of women like Gulnaz and Sahar.

But Dr Samar, like many others, fears the international community is no longer quite so interested in keeping up the pressure on women’s rights, as the West seeks to wind down its military campaign.

When Western soldiers no longer patrol the streets of Afghanistan, it will be easier to ignore what goes on behind locked doors and closed curtains in a faraway place.

Source: The BBC