Trafficked across the border from Pakistan with her 3-year-old son, Rukhma was handed to an Afghan who raped and abused her, then beat the toddler to death as she watched helplessly.
He was jailed for 20 years for murder, but Rukhma ended up in prison too.
Rukhma, who doesn't know her age but looks younger than 20, had put up with her mistreatment for three months last summer before seeking protection and justice from authorities. Instead she was given a four-year sentence on Dec. 5 for adultery and "escaping her house" in Pakistan, even though she says she was kidnapped and raped.
The fall of the Taliban six years ago heralded new rights for Afghan women: to go to school or get a job, and be protected under the law. Women's rights are now enshrined in the constitution.
Blaming the victim common
Yet except for a small urban elite, a woman fleeing domestic violence or accusing a man of rape herself often ends up the guilty party in the eyes of judges and prosecutors.
"Why am I here? I'm innocent," Rukhma said, crying in a musty jail cell and cradling a baby daughter by her previous marriage whom she bore in prison. "It is cruel to have your son killed before your eyes and then to be imprisoned."
In parts of Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, where stern social codes prevail, a woman who runs away from home is typically suspected of having taken a lover and can be prosecuted for adultery. Simply leaving her house without her family's permission may be deemed an offense — as in Rukhma's case — although it is not classified as such under Afghanistan's penal code.
The chief prosecutor of eastern Nangarhar province who oversaw Rukhma's case suggested she got off lightly.
"If my wife goes to the bazaar without my permission, I will kill her. This is our culture," Abdul Qayum shouted scornfully during an interview in his office in the city of Jalalabad.
His colleagues laughed approvingly. "This is Afghanistan, not America," Qayum said.
More women seeking help
The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission registered 2,374 cases of women complaining of violence in 2007, compared with 1,651 in 2006 — a sign that more are seeking help.
Family response units have been established in the police force, and there are tentative signs of sympathy in officialdom — at least in the relatively liberal capital, Kabul.
At a Kabul hospital, a 16-year-old girl who is too scared to give her name is recuperating from reconstructive surgery after her husband cut off her nose and ears, bashed out all but six of her teeth with a stone, and poured boiling water on her.
In-laws from southern Zabul province want to take the girl home, but the hospital director refuses to hand her over.
"This brother-in-law comes every day. He says, 'Let me take her home. She's OK now,'" Dr. Ghairat Mal said. "I don't trust him. The Ministry of Women's Affairs brought her to us, and I won't let her go unless they take her."
Kamala Janakiram, a U.N. human rights officer in eastern Afghanistan, said that in 70 to 80 percent of the cases she has seen, a woman complaining of domestic violence is charged as a criminal for running away from home.
Rape victims forced to marry attackers
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime said many rape victims are forced to marry their attackers or are jailed for adultery because proving rape is virtually impossible.
Women can end up in prison simply on the basis of gossip, said Manizha Naderi, the director of Women for Afghan Women, an aid organization. "It's a horrible, horrible practice."
Fear of returning to a violent spouse drives some women to suicide.
Janakiram cited the case of a young village woman in Laghman province who was shot by her husband and left to die.
She survived, but the provincial judge refused to hear her plea for a divorce and insisted that local elders resolve the matter.
Janakiram said the woman was so scared of being forced to return to her abusive husband that on Jan. 30, she set herself ablaze in front of the Laghman court. She had burns on 98 percent of her body and died a week later.
Naderi told of a 16-year-old girl kidnapped from her engagement party by three men and raped, after which her fiance called off the engagement.
"The whole village blacklisted her and said, 'It's your fault. Why did you go with them?' She was a lost soul because she was raped," Naderi said.
Rather than approach police, some women seek a reconciliation through village elders or aid organizations.
Saving family honor
Orzala Ashraf, an Afghan women's rights activist, said that usually gets the woman home but can leave her vulnerable to abuse or even death at the hands of male relatives bent on saving family honor.
"The woman will be more humiliated than before because she violated the family rules: You never discuss family problems outside the family circle," Ashraf said.
Rukhma, who goes by only one name, is still hoping an appeals court will free her.
Sitting on the prison floor with a black scarf over her hair and shoulders, she described being married in Pakistan as a preteen to an abusive man, who fathered her son, Bilal.
She said she divorced him and married another Pakistani man by whom she became pregnant last year. Then, she says, a female neighbor kidnapped her and delivered to an Afghan man named Yarul who claimed her as his wife and raped her for three months.
One day she overheard Yarul finalizing a deal to sell her to another man, who wanted her but not her son.
Scared of losing Bilal, she ran away one day late last summer. When Yarul found her and took her home, he beat her and the toddler relentlessly.
She said the boy was placed under a blanket, barely conscious, blood dripping from his mouth.
"When I lifted the blanket, he looked up and saw his mother. I could see that those were going to be his last breaths, and then he died. That was the last time we looked each other in the eyes," she said, her voice cracking, her face crumpled in grief. As she cried, so did the newborn daughter of her second marriage, lying in her lap.
When police came to arrest Yarul, they arrested her, too.
The prosecutor, Qayum, acknowledges that Rukhma was raped by Yarul but still maintains she shares the blame.
"She spent several nights with the man," he said. "She committed adultery. It was rape, but the woman is also guilty."