The case of the ten-year-old Afghan girl who was raped by a local mullah in Kunduz province shocked the world last July. Women for Afghan Women sheltered the girl and helped her get medical treatment and justice and the girl was back with her family. But there were serious concerns that the parents may kill their daughter in the name of honor.

While the Kunduz case made headlines, many similar rape cases in Afghanistan are never reported. Sometimes when a rape victim goes to the police, she is arrested and accused of zina–an adultery crime. Some girls hide what happened because they are afraid for their life. Sometimes the combination of the abuse and the knowledge that there will be no support coming from family, government, or society, leads the victims to suicide.

My uncle’s first wife was raped at age twelve by a close relative living in the same house. She was too afraid to tell anyone and when my uncle found out on their wedding night, he divorced her. With that, she lost her chance to marry a young, single, and healthy man. She married several times after that but none of the marriages lasted. Some of the husbands were drug addicts and the marriages ended in divorce, or the husband died.

The value of a girl

The rape problem is complicated by deep-seated cultural and religious beliefs that view women, not as human beings with rights, but as property of their families. Much like a fancy new car brings admiration from neighbors, the chasteness of a woman brings honor to the family. In a culture where the men, above all other things, value honor in the tribe, it is easy to see how a rape brings shame to a family.

Once raped, the woman or girl becomes tarnished goods. Some of these women will never marry and will become a lifelong financial burden on the family.

It is no wonder that the response to a rape generally focuses on the guilt of the woman, rather than the male perpetrator. The woman, who is the source of the dishonor, has nothing but terrible options. She can be killed in an honor killing, severely punished, or forced to marry the rapist so as not to bring shame to the family.

This cultural ideology that women are property, devoid of rights or dignity, is the fundamental reason rape is perpetuated in Afghanistan. It is so embedded in the cultural and religious views, particularly among rural and uneducated populations, that change will not be easy to effect or maintain. However, I think change is possible through education and religious and political reforms.

Gang rape in the Paghman district

Because most rapes in Afghanistan take place inside the home, the gang rape of four women returning from a wedding party last August again shocked Afghan people who remember gang rapes from the civil war. The attack happened late at night when a group of armed men stopped two cars returning from the Paghman district. The armed men separated the men in the cars from the women, dragged the women to a field nearby, beat and raped them, and stole their jewelry and mobile phones. One of the women was pregnant.

Demonstrators protested against the crimes and with the support of government, police, and media, the women survivors identified their rapists. Police arrested most of the men within a week and charged them with robbery and assault.

One of the survivors talked about the incident in the court, which is very unusual in Afghanistan. They were convicted and former President Karzai signed their sentences for capital punishment. He said at the time, “I am strongly against executions, and you know this, but I want them executed.” Because rape is not explicitly mentioned in the Afghan penal code, the judge sentenced the rapists with “forced adultery.” Under Afghan law, this is punishable by death. Five of the men were executed on October 8 in prison.

After raping the young girl in July, the mullah in Kunduz was also arrested. He went to trial in October. At trial he claimed the girl had seduced him in his mosque—a claim that would have amounted under Sharia law to adultery. But the judge did not agree and the mullah was sentenced to twenty years in jail.

How to solve the gender violence

Mullahs must be taught about women’s rights and international human rights, so they will stop misinterpreting the rights Islam has given to women. The ability to read and access the Internet can go a long way toward cultural change. But education must remain a priority, particularly in outlying provinces.

When women learn about their rights, they educate all of their children and demand better laws and enforcement of the laws. Educated women are more able to break free of the cultural mandate to keep rape quiet. Men also need to be educated so they can question such cultural views. Finally, the government must enforce the laws about rape equitably.

I believe Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani and his new government need to take a consistently hard line with abusers and rapists to show that this cultural norm is no longer acceptable under any circumstance.

The new government must create and enforce laws against people who take action against rape victims. The Afghan constitution and the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law must be signed and put in practice so rape is explicitly criminalized. Women’s organizations and women activists should be afforded some protection, both under the law and in reality so they can continue to help rape victims. Finally, honor killings can no longer be tolerated.

By Marzia