Sobbing and barely able to speak, a teenage girl from Afghanistan’s northern Takhar province describes the horror of being gang-raped at gunpoint.
“They raped me for three days and nights. I felt like I was going crazy," she said. "They forced me to drink alcohol. I couldn’t get up. They had guns, knives. They were so cruel and brutal. I screamed and cried, but they didn’t care.”
Many others in Afghanistan have undergone similar ordeals. But the true numbers are not known, because victims and their families usually prefer to remain silent, fearing a lifetime of disgrace in their conservative society.
In recent months, however, some victims’ families have begun to break the silence, and their calls for justice have prompted President Hamid Karzai to acknowledge the problem.
Sheila Samimi, a member of the Afghan Women’s Network (ANW) -- a group that brings together dozens of women's organizations -- tells RFE/RL that in just the first three months of this year, there were 112 reported rape cases involving girls under the age of 17. Most of the reported cases have taken place in Afghanistan's northern provinces, including Sari Pol, Jowzjan, and Takhar. According to Samimi, there are thousands more such cases across Afghanistan, where “raped women, girls, and even boys have chosen to keep it secret.”
The victims' silence is driven not only by fear of disgrace, but also because in many cases, the assailants are powerful and well-connected people with ties to armed groups or government officials, according to Afghan rights activists.
But as victims begin to come forward, private television channels have publicized their stories through programs about adolescent girls and their families suffering the after-effects of rape.
In one testimony, the parents of one 11-year-old girl who was raped by five armed men in Sari Pol Province said the entire family wanted to commit suicide because they “were not able to protect their child.”
After this interview and others were broadcast on television and posted on feminist websites, Karzai met with two rape victims and their relatives. Karzai promised to crack down on rape and bring assailants to justice -- “to face the country’s most severe punishment,” meaning the death penalty.
In Sari Pol, five officials, including the chief of security and high-ranking police officers, were sacked shortly after Karzai’s statement in early August.
In Takhar Province, police arrested six men, including border guard officers, in connection with the rape of the teenage girl.
ANW representatives recently met with Afghan Vice President Ahmad Zia Masood to ask the government to punish offenders and find ways to prevent the crime.
Following the ANW initiative, Afghan state television has started to air weekly programs about rape and other crimes against women. Program producers usually invite police officers, high-ranking authorities, and community leaders to take part in the discussion.
Samimi said the ANW has started a nationwide campaign to put pressure on the authorities not to allow offenders to go free.
Many religious leaders and imams have also agreed to participate in the campaign and address the issue in their sermons. At the same time, the ANW is seeking to raise women’s awareness about their rights. “We tell them to go to the police instead of suffering in silence,” Samimi said.
But the campaign has yet to make an impact on some institutions. “In Sari Pol Province, a family member of a local parliamentarian raped a 12-year-old girl,” Samimi said. “But he walks free because the police wouldn’t dare to arrest him.”
“Afghanistan doesn’t yet have a proper police system. It’s a country coming out of war and there are many problems in such countries," Samimi said. "We don’t have the rule of law and therefore the [lawmaker] doesn’t allow the court to try his son. He has power and influence, and he threatened the victim’s family that if they complained, there would be consequences.”
In some other cases, jailed rapists simply bribe their way out of prison. And victims’ families worry that assailants could take retribution against the victim for her testimony.
Samimi says such incidents are threatening the rights that Afghan women have won after the fall of the hard-line Taliban. “Some people say the Taliban wouldn’t allow girls to go to school or work, but at least under the Taliban, girls wouldn’t be raped with impunity,” she said.
A very young girl from Jowzjan Province recently came to the local police station along with her mother. She accused a neighbor of raping her and pleaded with the police to punish him.
“What he did to me was wicked," she told Radio Free Afghanistan from the police station. "I want the government to kill this man. But the government doesn’t listen to me.”
Women's’ rights activists hope that this young girl and others like her can eventually find justice and feel secure that the government will protect them.
RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report