Still, for every improvement, there are other signs of women’s continued misery. The U.N. says more than half of Afghanistan’s female prison population is made up of women sentenced by local courts for fleeing their marriages — the charge is often phrased as “intent to commit adultery,” even though that’s not a crime under Afghan law. And the U.N. women’s agency UNIFEM estimates that half of all girls are forced to marry under age 15, even though the legal marriage age is 16.
“There’s very good standards on paper. There’s very active women’s networks,” said Georgette Gagnon, the U.N.’s human rights director in Afghanistan. “A lot has been done, but there is still a long way to go.”
A U.N. report in November also found that a 2009 law passed to protect Afghan women from violence was rarely enforced. For the 12-month period ending in March 2011, prosecutors filed indictments in 155 cases, only 7 percent of all 2,299 crimes reported. And activists say those complaints are a small fraction of the true level of abuse.
Part of the problem is the ingrained attitudes of police and courts that cause them to turn a blind eye or even send women back to their abusers, said Latifa Sultani, coordinator for women’s protection with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
“Some local officials still believe women shouldn’t have rights,” Sultani said.
Last month, Karzai pardoned a 19-year-old woman who was imprisoned after she was raped and impregnated by a cousin. A local court sentenced her to 12 years in prison for having sex out of wedlock, a crime in Afghanistan. The judge told her she could get out of prison if she agreed to marry her alleged rapist, but she refused and gave birth to her daughter in prison.
Passing laws that protect women is one thing, enforcing them is another. Women’s groups are pressing Karzai to do more, but most acknowledge that with the central government so weak, the real battle will be fought in individual police stations, courtrooms and prosecutors’ offices. Not least will be persuading Afghans to change their views.
That’s why the gruesome story of Sahar Gul’s imprisonment and torture is seen by some activists as an opportunity for the government to recommit publicly to women’s rights. They say are encouraged that Karzai felt compelled by the outcry to become involved.
For now, Gul remains in a Kabul hospital, where she transferred from a local hospital in Baghlan province. An Afghan official said this week that she will be sent to India for further medical treatment. It’s unclear where she will go when she returns to Afghanistan.
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