Brought up in a household with no father, Soma felt she had no choice when she underwent the traditional wedding ceremony and moved to her father-in-law’s home in Kabul to start a new life.
But upon her arrival, she was shocked to learn she had been married to an eight-year-old boy, and was forced to work as a prostitute instead.
Every night Soma’s father-in-law hosted parties, where for 200 dollars visiting men could eat, drink alcohol and watch Soma and her two sister-in-laws dance. The girls would then be forced to sleep with up to four men in one night. Soma said she was regularly injected for her blood, which was then displayed on bed sheets as ‘proof’ to clients she was a virgin.
Soma was lucky. After two years one client took pity on her and helped her escape to the police, where she reported the crime before being sent to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Her safety however is not guaranteed; she is now back in the home of her grandfather in Mazar-e-Sharif, and the man who subjected her to sex slavery in Kabul has eluded arrest.
"If you compare sex trafficking in Afghanistan with other developed countries you definitely will see some differences," says Nigina Mamadjonova, a programme manager for the International Organisation of Migration (IOM), which tracks trafficking cases nationwide.
"For instance, post-Soviet Union countries are mainly the sending countries for sex trafficking. I cannot say it doesn’t happen here – it happens sometimes - but it has another nature. Deceiving relatives are doing it; it is more family-orientated. It’s mostly internal, and is not so organised like in other countries.
"Here we see many forced or early marriages," explains Mamadjonova. "Families will sell their women and they will work as prostitutes. The reason we don’t see many cases is because of the nature of the culture. These women don’t have options because a lot of the time the families won’t accept them back because of shame. And they cannot approach social workers or organisations for help as they might be ultimately killed."
Afghanistan’s decades-long violence has resulted in the displacement of millions, and chronic poverty, and increased the vulnerability of women and children sold into forced early marriages before the legal age of 16 years, and harmful labour.
A recent survey by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) found that over 60 percent of women and children trafficking was internal. Of those, 45 percent were girls, and 38 percent were women. Domestic exploitation was the biggest motivation for internal trafficking, followed by prostitution.
In 2009 the Afghan government enacted the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law, which criminalises acts like forced marriage. In July this year the Combating Kidnapping and Human Trafficking law was passed.
However, many human rights activists point to the lack of capacity of government ministries to implement the laws effectively; it is often the female victim who is branded a criminal by the justice system, and imprisoned.
"Because of a weak and corrupt government, it is hard to prevent human, sex and child trafficking, and the judicial system is not paying attention to this – saying it is more of a family issue, not a court issue," says Hamid Safwat, regional manager for the Cooperation Centre for Afghanistan (CCA) in Mazar-e-Sharif.
CCA recently protected a girl who was kidnapped at age 12 at the city’s famous shrine of Hazrat Ali - commonly known as ‘The Blue Mosque’ - and held for eight months by men she described as government officials. She was raped repeatedly before she escaped and hid out at a shelter for a couple years, in fear of being killed for shaming her family. She is now married with a child, and is reported to have re-established a relationship with her mother and father.
Across town, the Women and Youth Support Centre gathers names from the police of suspected prostitutes, and pays house calls to deliver aid and advice.
"Some of their husbands are pushing them to make money by sex," says the centre’s director, Nilofar Sayar, who says poverty is the main driver, and that prostitutes usually work out of their family homes to feed their children. "Some of them are young girls whose fathers were pushing them. For instance, the men are addicted to drugs like heroin and hash. We study their backgrounds, and usually the father and mother were divorced, or one had died."
Sayar recalls one of the women she met. "The husband was pushing her to have illegal sex when she got married at 15 or 16 years old. The husband was bringing strangers to the house and she was pushed to sleep with them. So she set herself on fire when she was 18 to avoid this. She is now 25, and her face, hands and neck are burned," Sayar sighs. "She is still with her husband because she has four children."
"Civil society organisations and clean people in the government are weak in preventing trafficking," explains Hamid Safwat. "We are also weak in observing the level of trafficking in Afghanistan. There is not a national vision for preventing such activities. There are rules, but there is no implementation or taking action. So the rules are useless."