For women and girls in Afghanistan like Sahar Gul, violence continues to be a part of everyday life. An exclusive interview with Women for Women International's Afghan County Director Sweeta Noori.
-Diana Denza, BettyConfidential.com
When my younger twin sisters were in their early teens, most of their time was consumed by the three Bs: boyfriends, best friends, and buying clothes. And let's face it: so was most of ours. Many of us reminisce about those innocent years spent taking the laws and parental guidance that protected us for granted. But 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan, countless young girls have witnessed and experienced rights violations that are almost unimaginable to women in this country.
When 15-year-old Sahar Gul was rescued just days ago from the basement of her in-laws' residence in the northern Baghlan province of Afghanistan, her hair and nails had been torn out, her fingers broken, and her body burned with hot irons.
Afghan officials told CNN that this monstrous act of torture was carried out by the girl's husband and his family because she refused to become a prostitute. For six months, Gul's 30-year-old husband and her in-laws kept her locked away in their underground chamber of horrors.
According to nonprofit organization Women for Women International's Afghan County DirectorSweeta Noori, this type of horrific abuse against women is occurring all too often in the country.
"Sahar Gul's story is heartbreaking and, unfortunately, her experience is not uncommon in today's Afghanistan," Noori told BettyConfidential in an exclusive interview.
"Over a decade after the fall of the brutally oppressive Taliban regime, women in Afghanistan continue to live under a constant threat of violence, both within their homes and out in their communities," said Noori. "Although the government has implemented laws to protect women, discriminatory practices in Afghanistan's informal and formal justice systems has allowed violence against women to continue. Honor killings, early and forced marriages, and sexual abuse and slavery are still prevalent."
Just how prevalent these acts of violence are might shock you. According to an Oxfam reportreleased in October 2011, 87 percent of Afghan women have been victims of physical, sexual, or psychological assault or forced marriage. Meanwhile, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission found that there were 1,026 reported cases of violence against women in the second quarter of 2011 alone. The year before, approximately 2,700 cases in total were reported.
And Gul's story comes on the heels of another high profile case in Afghanistan. A woman known only as Gulnaz, now 21, was sentenced to 12 years in prison when she was a teen for being raped by her cousin's husband -considered the crime of adultery in Afghanistan. After bearing her rapist's child in prison, she agreed to wed the man to gain freedom for herself and the daughter conceived in the attack. President Hamid Karzai finally pardoned Gulnaz after she spent two years behind bars -- where she gave birth to her daughter.
According to the BBC, half of the female prisoners in Afghanistan are in jail for so-called "moral crimes."
Though women like Gulnaz have been brought up on charges for "dishonoring" their families by having sexual contact out of wedlock (even when forced), Gul's marriage was never officially sanctioned by law in the first place. The legal age for marriage in Afghanistan is 16, but Gul's family was nevertheless able to arrange their daughter's wedding.
"This law is not strictly enforced," Noori explained. "Nearly half of Afghan women are married before they turn 16. In a practice called baad, women and girls can be given away as brides to settle a family's debts or pay for a relative's crimes. Practices like these can be used to marry off young girls."
Hauntingly, a number of these child brides share Gul's fate: they become prostitutes or suffer at the hands of displeased relatives.
"In Afghanistan, there are many forced and early marriages where women will be sold by their families and they will work as prostitutes," Noori said. "This arrangement restricts women's options even further, as they are often not accepted back by their families because of the shame."
But despite the widespread abuse of Afghan women's rights, the tide has slowly been turning. Police in Afghanistan have arrested Gul's in-laws and issued a warrant for her husband, all of whom have been struck with abuse charges. Meanwhile, a commission set up by President Karzai has been tasked with launching an investigation into Gul's abuse.
Outrage from the public sphere has also resulted in coverage by prominent media outlets. In response to Gul's tale of atrocious abuse, the Afghanistan Times ran an editorial titled "Let's Break the Dead Silence on Women's Plight."
Noori said that these steps "are encouraging, and show attitudes within the country are slowly changing and many are ready to address these types of abuse."
"This is a critical time for the women of Afghanistan," she continued. "Women are still victims of domestic violence and denied basic rights. Many Afghan women live without access to health care, or access to economic or legal power. Although these challenges seem daunting, they are not insurmountable. Through my work with Women for Women International, I have had an opportunity to see the untold stories of hope, advocacy, empowerment, and women-led change. Afghan women are not passive, helpless victims. The women we serve in Afghanistan are defending their hard-won freedoms, sending their children to school, running thriving businesses and standing up for peace in their communities."
Gul will be treated for her extensive injuries in India, but is expected to provide authorities with more information once she has made a recovery.
Though we can't turn back the clock and prevent the torture of this defenseless child, there are steps we can all take to ensure that women in Afghanistan can better protect themselves.
"They can show Afghan women that there is someone in the world who cares about them and is looking out for their future," Noori explained. "Since opening our doors in 2002, WfWI-Afghanistan has served over 87,000 women and distributed more than $23 million in direct aid and microfinance assistance. Currently, more than 5,500 women are participating in our year-long sponsorship program where they are receiving training in vocational skills, business management and rights awareness. By becoming a Women for Women International sponsor, you can build a connection with a woman survivor of war in Afghanistan."