Sahar Gul wants justice.
Images of the 15-year-old girl tortured for months by her husband and his family in northeastern Afghanistan have shocked Afghans and catapulted her story into newspaper and network headlines around the world. The crime for which she reportedly endured an unimaginable barrage of torture? Refusing to allow her husband’s family to make her a prostitute.
Sahar Gul reached a Kabul hospital with a malnourished body that testified to her brutalization: eyes swollen shut, broken fingers, scabs where fingernails once sat, and bruises and scars nearly everywhere. Afghan police rescued the teenager late last month from her in-laws’ home, where they said she had been locked in a basement with little food and water.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Gul said she wants her husband and his relatives to pay with prison time for their crimes.
“I want them to be in jail,” she said. “They gave me electric shock... They beat me with cables and tortured me.”
Police have arrested her husband’s parents and sister. An arrest warrant has been issued for her husband, a member of the Afghan National Army, but he has not yet been found.
Even if her husband is located and arrested, Sahar Gul’s path to justice is likely to be long—if it even begins. Violence against women is widespread, according to human rights advocates. The practice of baad, in which girls are given away to settle disputes between families, continues in many parts of the country. And studies cited by the United Nations show that roughly half of all girls are forced into marriage before reaching the age of 15.
The country’s Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women, enacted in 2009, outlawed such practices, but actual implementation of the legislation remains limited at best.
“Law enforcement authorities often are unwilling or unable to apply laws that protect women’s rights,” according to the United Nations mission (PDF) in Afghanistan. “Such inaction is one of the main factors that permit harmful traditional practices.”
In November, the U.N. examined the gap between the law’s promise and actual practice. “Tradition has led to concealment of abuses within the family, and police and justice officials routinely ignore domestic violence and arrest and prosecute women who attempt to flee forced marriage and family abuse,” said a report (PDF) on the law’s implementation aptly titled “A Long Way to Go.”
According to the U.N. in Afghanistan, prosecutors opened cases in 26 percent of roughly 2,300 incidents of violence against women reported, and filed indictments in only 7 percent of these.
“Women still have almost no or very little access to justice,” says Orzala Ashraf, an Afghan human rights activist who previously worked with women’s shelters. “There may be tens of thousands of these cases, but we only have a couple thousand people who are brave enough to come forward.” Adds Ashraf: “Rape cases, acid attacks, poisoning of school girls—we see a pattern of systematic violence against women.”
Ashraf and other activists argue, however, that against the tragedy of Sahar Gul’s case, there is progress in the fact that people are now openly speaking about abuse of women. And they say they appreciate that the Afghan government—including the Attorney General’s office—is now helping them fight perpetrators of violence against women in a country ranked the “most dangerous in the world” to be a woman.
“It is a start that they are trying to prosecute the cases,” says Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women, which runs family guidance centers and shelters in several parts of the country. Naderi’s is only one of a number of groups created in the past decade to offer safety to women fleeing violence, and to inform them and their families of their rights under Afghan law. “I am sure they are going to get stronger as time goes by, and they are going to do more and more.”
Naderi says that while Sahar Gul’s case is “extreme,” she hears wrenching cases of violence each week. She tells of a teenage girl in Faryab province who recently sought safety at her group’s family center after her husband beat her and kicked her in the side—only to die several days later in a Kabul hospital from complications resulting from a ruptured spleen. Naderi and her staff had tried to help keep the girl alive by donating blood.
“Yes, we lose some cases, but we are helping women on a daily basis,” she says.
Women for Afghan Women recently opened the country’s first transitional home for women released from prison who have no place to go.
One of these young women is Zarguna, a 16-year-old with a disarming smile who barely looks teenaged. She says her mother’s boyfriend began molesting her when she was only a child and forced her into prostitution before she had even reached the age of 10, reportedly “selling” her virginity to three different men. When she was 14, police raided the brothel and sent her to jail.
Sitting in the quiet of the transitional home where she arrived four months ago, Zarguna says she is trying to build a new life, but it clearly is not easy. She never had the chance to go to school and has known only abuse for as long as she can remember.
“I want a good future, but I don’t know how,” Zarguna says, speaking softly and looking down at the dining table in front of her. “I couldn’t have gone back to my mother, because they would have done to me what they did last time.”
For Naderi, who spends her days hearing stories nearly as harrowing as Sahar Gul’s, the deluge of publicity surrounding Gul’s case is largely positive.
“For Afghanistan to tackle women’s rights and make sure that women’s rights are preserved, cases like those have to be very public—not just this case, but others as well: underage marriage, girls being sold,” says Naderi. “All of this has to be publicized in order to show people these are not okay and you will be punished if you do it.”
Gul’s story is only the latest in a string of horrific and high-profile cases of abuse of Afghan women to seize the international spotlight. A young woman named Gulnaz caught the world’s attention this winter when a film highlighted her imprisonment for the “crime” of having been raped. Afghan President Hamid Karzai eventually pardoned her following a storm of media coverage, but an outcry was later provoked when she was urged to marry her attacker for the sake of her safety.
The maiming of Bibi Aisha, whose in-laws cut off parts of her nose and ears for trying to flee their endless abuse, shocked the world in a story first reported by The Daily Beast in 2009. When her picture reached the cover of TIME in 2010, her story became an international cause and the young woman reached the safety of the United States last year. A happy ending, however, remains elusive, as Bibi Aisha tries to rebuild her life amid incessant media attention and continued emotional trauma. She has yet to have the plastic surgery to repair her nose com and ear.
While the media trains its lens and its notebooks on these single cases in short and spectacular bursts, the victims’ much harder work of pursuing justice and finding a ‘normal’ life following unspeakable cruelty and sustained abuse often receives far less attention.
“It is good that these stories are covered, but most important is that the media should also cover the followup: what happens to the people who have done this?” says Ashraf of Gul’s abusers. “There are not enough programs in the media that would be interested in following that story. It is critical that we know two months from today, two years from today, what happens. People have committed a crime against this girl.”