Sweeta tucked her hands between her thighs and began to rock as she told her story. The details emerged in a monotone, her face expressionless. Last winter she had just stepped out of her house in Afghanistan's northern province of Jowzjan to fetch water from the well when a neighbor approached her. He told her that her father was ill and had been taken to the hospital. He offered her a ride. When she refused, he threw her into his car, his hand over her mouth so no one would hear her scream. He took her to a room in the nearby army garrison. "And then he took off his pants," she says. "He raped me." Sweeta is only 11 years old.
Child rape is on the rise in Afghanistan's northern provinces, part of a general increase in crime that is largely overshadowed by an equally disturbing spread of insurgency. Government officials say only a handful of child rapes have been reported across Afghanistan in the past few months, but human rights organizations say the toll is much higher. Maghferat Samimi, head of the Afghan Human Rights Organization in Jowzjan, says that over the past two months she has interviewed 19 victims from the three northern provinces she serves. The youngest victim was 2 1/2 years old. Samimi carries the little girl's picture in her mobile phone, ready to show to anyone who might be able to stop what she calls a new plague on her country.
She is not the only one bringing the crimes to light. In this conservative Islamic country where a girl's virginity is valued above all else, rape has long been considered something shameful, something to be hidden at all costs. But as the incidents increase, families are starting to speak up, risking dishonor in order to bring justice. Families of teenage victims are airing their tales on national TV, hoping, like Samimi, that somebody will be able to do something. So far, little has been done.
The Interior Ministry has announced that it will crack down on sexual assault. During a recent press conference, President Hamid Karzai said that rapists should face "the country's most severe punishment." Yet on the same day, a man charged with the rape of a 7-year-old boy in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif escaped from prison. Three policemen, thought to have assisted his escape in exchange for a payoff, have been detained; the man has not been recaptured.
It is not uncommon for criminals to bribe their way out of prison in Afghanistan. But in the north, where warlords still command private militias and enrich their armies by running lucrative smuggling routes, impunity is rife. Police often refuse to register cases against well-known criminals, for fear of retaliation and more often because they are on the take. When Amruddin's 13-year-old daughter was kidnapped in Sar-i-pul province last year, he had to pay for the local police officer's fuel in order to get the officer to visit the café where she had last been seen. The officer was no help. When Amruddin who, like most poor farmers in Afghanistan, only has one name finally found his daughter a week later, she identified the police officer as one of her eight rapists. Three other suspects worked for the village strongman. When their case came to the local prosecutor, he dismissed it, saying there wasn't enough evidence. More likely, says Amruddin, there wasn't enough of a bribe. Amruddin says that in order to raise enough money for all the necessary bribes, he sold his two other daughters, ages 9 and 11, for $5,000. "I had to sell them in order to pursue this case," he says. "What else can I do? I am not a pimp, a coward, to let these men get away with what they did. I will sell all of my children if that is what it takes to get justice."
Corruption in Afghanistan's justice sector is often shrugged off by international donors who argue that security and development must take a higher priority. Some take it as the price of doing business, saying that rich countries can't expect Afghanistan to meet Western standards of transparency. Indeed, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has just endorsed a plan that would give $20 billion to build up Afghanistan's military and police forces. But what is the use of improving the police sector when the judicial system is unable to successfully prosecute criminals? A few countries are beginning to address this problem. Norway has just announced a $6 million contribution to Afghanistan's justice-sector reform program, in addition to the $21 million already donated by other countries. The fund will cover legal reform, training, court and office rehabilitation, computers and legal assistance.
What Afghanistan needs, says Major General Robert Cone, who oversees the U.S. effort to train Afghanistan's security forces, is a surge of lawyers to take on the country's justice system, just as the international community has sent soldiers to mentor the police and army. "Good policing needs a good judicial system," says Cone. "I think that a similar effort to the police effort needs to be launched on a similar scope and scale to address the justice issues. We have some real problems with corruption in the prisons here. There are 10 links between arrest and putting someone in jail. The police own the first four links in the process, but if you fix the first four links without addressing the next six, it won't work."
Sweeta's family knows that revealing the details of her ordeal may condemn her to an unmarried life marked by shame and poverty. But they are not seeking money, only justice. After six months of waiting for resolution, Sweeta's sister Saleha has given up on the government and is starting to wonder if the past seven years of foreign intervention have brought any progress at all to Afghanistan. "If the Taliban were still here, that rapist would have already been executed by now. It would have been a lesson for all," she says. "If there is no law, and the government does not listen to people's complaints, then it is better to go back to the Taliban era. At least then we had justice." With reporting by Ali Safi / Sheberghan