Azeem needed money to buy the drugs to which he had become addicted. He didn’t have any. He asked his wife, Sitara, but she didn’t have any either. So Azeem demanded she hand over her jewellery, which he hoped to sell to fund his habit. Sitara, 30, had been trying to persuade her husband to give up the drugs for a long time. She refused.

Sitara was found by her neighbors in Herat, Afghanistan, just after midnight on 13th December 2013, covered in blood. Her refusal to cooperate had enraged her husband, who became violent; he broke bones in her arms and hands, knocked her semi-unconscious and stabbed her in the head with knife. Still not satisfied, he cut off her nose and upper lip and threw them to the floor, leaving a triangle-shaped hole in her face.

This scene was witnessed by her four young children, whose screams attracted the attention of neighbors. Azeem fled the scene; Sitara was taken to hospital. Doctors say that her treatment is not possible in Afghanistan due and she must be taken abroad for plastic surgery.

Activists of both genders held a protest in Herat to ask for justice for this horrific crime, criticizing the government’s failure to prosecute the perpetrator as well as religious clerks for their total silence in the face of increasing violence towards women. These clerks waste no time when it comes to proposing restrictions on women’s rights and freedom to work and travel and rarely use their perch to promote human rights for women. In a country where the religious Ulema Council considers women second class citizens, it’s not surprising that men feel they can commit these crimes without any fear of prosecution.

Speaking at a press conference Dr Sima Samar, chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said, “This act is against human dignity; the perpetrator must be arrested and charged. It can’t be an excuse that he has run away, police must take this seriously”.

Civil society advocates have urged other human rights organizations and the Afghan government to pay serious attention to this case and not to keep silent. They want to avoid a repeat of the case of Sahar Gu a child bride whose brutal torture shocked Afghanistan. Just months later her tormentors were set free by the very lawmakers who had promised her justice.

Thanks to the activists and members of the Afghan media who covered Sitara’s news, the Ministry of Interior condemned the act, the Ministry of Counter Narcotics pledged to cover her medical costs, and the Governor of Herat agreed to support her family until her treatment is complete. The likelihood of these promises being kept is another question. But why does a woman have to suffer to this extent in order for the authorities to take some notice? Why is it so easy for a man to treat another human being in such an inhuman manner? Sitara is only one of many female victims of violence in Afghanistan. The majority of these cases do not get reported.

If Sitara had fled her abusive addict husband to prevent such an incident, or to protect her children, she would probably have been imprisoned for the ‘moral crime’ of running away from home, like so many other women and girls whose lives are simply being wasted behind bars. In worst cases, they can be killed for crimes against ‘honor’ if they leave their husband’s house without his permission.

Although a new UN report shows that violence against Afghan women has gone up by 28% in the last year, prosecutions relating to these crimes have gone up by only two percent. Reasons for this include the Afghan government’s failure to track down and charge the perpetrators, the misogynistic attitude of some police officers and prosecutors who treat women fleeing abuse as criminals rather than victims, and some religious extremists polluting men’s mentality by insisting that they are superior to women.

All civil societies must mobilize together and create more grassroots movements around the country to pressurise the government and ensure justice is served to Sitara and other women and girls who have been victims of abuse. The international community must stay committed to consolidate this struggle against injustice and inequality.

Without respecting and valuing half of its society, Afghanistan will remain adrift and continue to suffer in poverty and violence. Any international support for the Afghan government and its security must depend on continued progress with and support for human rights, not just in theory but in practice.

It is not enough to utter a few token lines of condemnation and then fall silent. No one is asking the government to act as a bodyguard for every woman in Afghanistan, but the very least they must do is to enforce the laws on violence against women, and prosecute those who break them.

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