Married off at the age of 4

Afghan girl, now 12, offers story of horror and hope.

By Lynn Harris
Published March 29, 2006 8:50PM (EST)

I just got an e-mail from Women for Afghan Women directing readers to a heartbreaking-then-inspiring article by Yahoo's award-winning Kevin Sites. Taking a page from Nicholas Kristof's playbook, Sites shares the story of a 12-year-old Afghan girl named Gulsoma who, married off at age 4 (not a typo) when her widowed mother's second husband decided he didn't want her, endured seven years of truly surreal abuse at the hands of her "husband's" family. (The faint of heart may wish to do some judicious skimming through the middle of Sites' article.) She crawled away one night after being beaten and threatened with death if a missing wristwatch did not turn up, and was taken immediately to a hospital when she was found hiding under a rickshaw. While her family denied abusing her, a neighbor corroborated Gulsoma's story and the police eventually arrested her "husband" and father-in-law. Gulsoma wound up in an orphanage in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital. Her entire body is scarred, the top of her head bald where she was scalded.

She says she still shivers involuntarily at sundown, a learned reaction from being forced to sleep outside in the cold desert night. And she's still afraid that her "family" will come for her.

"Yet," Sites writes, "she continues to smile. She doesn't ask for pity. She seems more concerned about us as she reads the shock on our faces. She says she believes there are other girls like her ... elsewhere in Afghanistan, and that she wants to study human rights and one day go back to help them. As we walk outside to take some pictures, I ask her if, after all she's been through, she thinks it will be harder to trust, to believe that there are actually good people in the world.

"'No,' she says, quickly. 'I didn't expect anyone would help me but God. I was really surprised that there were also nice people: the neighbor, the rickshaw driver, the police,' she says. 'I pray for those who helped release me.' Looking directly into the camera, she smiles as if nothing bad had ever happened to her in her entire life. 'I think that all people are good people,' she says, 'except for those that hurt me.'"

The story has garnered over 7,000 comments from adults and children alike. Sites' blog team has set up an e-mail address whereby messages of support can be sent and forwarded to Gulsoma. (Latest tally: Over 11,000.) And since you are not the only person wondering how you can adopt Gulsoma, or at least help girls and children like her, there's also a brief list of relevant aid organizations, including Women for Afghan Women (who run an orphan sponsorship program and are developing safe houses for abused women and girls). Now if we could just find a way, there and at home, to stop the violence before it starts.

Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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