Brutal torture of Afghan girl sold as bride aged 4

By Tom Coghlan in Kabul
Published: 15 April 2006

The suffering of Gulsoma's first 12 years is not
immediately apparent in the little girl with an open
face, who is doted on at Kabul's Women's Affairs
Ministry. But in repose her features cloud and she
clasps her arms around herself, while the overlapping
scars on her body offer a crude account of abuse.

She was married at the age of four into a family where
she was treated as a slave, beaten with electric
cables, stoned, her limbs broken with an axe handle,
starved, burned and doused with boiling water. Once
she was used as a human table top. She says her
father-in-law tortured her further by literally
rubbing salt into her wounds, an experience so painful
she says she asked God to let her die.

Gulsoma, now 13, is one of the first young girls to be
rescued by Afghanistan's Women's Affairs Ministry,
which was established after the fall of the Taliban
government as a first step to improving the lot of
women in one of the world's most unequal societies.

But cruelty to children comes to light rarely. As well
as her scars , Gulsoma walks with a limp, has limited
use of one arm and has a large bald patch at the back
of her head where boiling water has scarred her. But
the culture that allowed her abuse is all too familiar
in southern Afghanistan.

Gulsoma says that her earliest memory is being married
to a neighbour's son at the age of four. The groom,
Abdullah, was three.

"I remember the green clothes I wore," she says
quietly, clinging to the waist of the Independent's
photographer. "I don't remember if I was happy or
not." Her father owned a small shop in a village near
Kandahar, deep in the lawless, ultra-conservative
Pashtun belt of southern Afghanistan where the Taliban
insurgency persists.

The social code of Pashtunwali dominates in the
region. It is a culture of loyalty to kin and courtesy
to guests, but also a code where family matters are
private and the threat of violence offsets the lack of
central government control.

As chattels women can be bought and sold, are never
seen outside the home without a burkha, rarely
educated and prevented from contact with men beyond
immediate family.

When Gulsoma's father was killed by a landmine her
mother's prospects were bleak. Widows are rarely
allowed to remarry outside their husband's family.
Many end up on the street. Kabul is home to around
50,000 impoverished or destitute widows.

Gulsoma's mother was lucky to find a new husband, but
the man didn't want a daughter. So at four years old
she was sold in marriage for 3 million afghani to a
neighbour, a school janitor called Juma Gul, to become
the wife of the man's three-year-old son. Her value at
that time was roughly 40.

Such child marriages remain a feature of Afghan
customary practice, particularly in the south.

Within a year her mother had left for Pakistan and she
was being used as a slave by her husband's family and
forced to live and sleep on an old carpet in the yard.
In the winter the desert air grew bitterly cold. Today
Gulsoma says that she often finds herself shivering
involuntarily when night falls.

"Once I fell asleep when I was washing clothes," she
recalls. "They woke me by pouring boiling water over
me from a tea urn." She was beaten for any perceived
failure with sticks or electric flex. Her
father-in-law encouraged his children to throw stones
at her. The family stopped feeding her, except
left-over scraps. When she was forced to lie down as
an improvised table top she says her father used a
knife to cut food on her back.

In 2000, she made an attempt to escape. But when she
found her way to a Taliban checkpoint they beat her,
telling her she had brought disgrace on her family,
and returned her.

But last year, Gulsoma felt she no longer had a
choice. A watch went missing and she was blamed.

"I swore on the Koran that I did not take it," she
says. "But my father-in-law beat me the whole day with
an axe handle. He told me if the watch was not
returned he would kill me in the morning." Before dawn
Gulsoma escaped the compound and hid under a rickshaw.
When the driver took her to the police they were
appalled by her condition and confronted her husband's

When neighbours confirmed the story the police beat
Juma Gul savagely in front of Gulsoma.

"I cried when I saw that," she says, "because it
reminded me of my own beatings." Juma Gul spent less
than a year in prison. Gulsoma was transferred first
to an orphanage in Kandahar and then to Kabul.

She has begun school for the first time, where her
teachers describe her as a highly intelligent student.
She lives in an orphanage where she has many friends.

However, her father-in-law still owns her and is
looking for her. Under Pashtunwali women have no right
of divorce. If she were to marry another man her
father-in-law's family would be honour-bound to kill
both. Her chances of employment are slim.


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