Women's rights in Afghanistan

This is a story of astonishing cruelty and ugliness. Splayed on a hospital bed in Kabul, Afghanistan, 15-year-old Sahar Gul can hardly talk. Her body is covered in cigarette burns, her face is bruised purple and two of her fingernails are missing.

“I was locked in the toilet for several months and everyone tortured me. My husband, my mother and my sister in laws,” she says. “They pulled out my fingernails with pliers and were not giving me enough food or water.”

Billions of aid dollars aid have been spent in Afganistan over the past decade – many on women’s empowerment programs – but local rights groups say violations against women are on the rise in the war-torn nation.

Sahar Gul’s nightmare began after she married a man in the neighboring province of Baghlan about six months ago. She says she was locked up becuase she refused to have sex with other men that came to her in-laws’ home.

The police rescued Gul after her parents reported her missing. Three women including her mother-in-law have been arrested, but her husband ran away. Her horror story has attracted national attention, but her experience is one shared by many women in the country.

According to a report by the UK-based aid agency Oxfam, last year nearly 90 percent of Afghan women said they had experienced physical, sexual or psychological violence or been forced into marriage. Fattana Gailani, from the Afghanistan Women’s Council, says Afghan women suffer on a daily basis and have lost faith in foreign aid and institutions to improve their lives.

“The Americans and Europeans are supporting this corrupt government. Even foreigners understand that corruption and the drug mafia is controlling this government. The Afghan people are becoming tired with this,” she says.

The lack of education – particularly for girls – is a major cause of the problem, says Gailani.

“The majority of young women do not understand anything about their rights and nobody understands anything about the law. They do not know how to go to the police and how to go to the court,” she says, adding that even if cases do go to court the Justice Ministry has little power to enforce the law.

Technically the Afghan constitution guarantees equal rights for both men and woman, but Rohullah Qarizada, the head of the Afghanistan Bar Association, says there is a huge gap between the law and reality.

“Right now we have a separate law to protect women and stop violence against women, but the problem is its implementation.... So this creates a lot of problems in rural areas, where women do not have job opportunities,” he says.

Qarizada says that much more needs to be done to educate women and men about the law and the rights of women.

“When women do not go out too much they do not have access to learn about their rights and defending their rights. It is much better in cities where women go out and learn about their rights,” he says.

For now the Afghan government is planning to send 15-year-old abuse victim Sahar Gul to India for more treatment.

President Hamid Karzai has ordered the Ministry of Interior to seriously investigate her case and arrest all those involved in torturing her.

(This article was first broadcast on Asia Calling, a regional current affairs radio program produced by Indonesia’s independent radio news agency KBR68H www.asiacalling.org.)