Brutal torture of Afghan girl sold as bride aged 4

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The Independent Online

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 family.

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.

* Separate blasts in Afghanistan yesterday killed three policemen and wounded six people, including two British peacekeepers. The three policemen were killed when a remote-controlled bomb hit their truck on a main road outside the south-eastern town of Khost. Earlier, two British soldiers from a Nato-led force were among three people wounded in suicide car-bomb attack in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand.