The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In 2004, I met an Afghan girl sold into an abusive marriage at age 9. This month, I set out to find her.

Pekay was small, with a puffy nose and an infectious smile. That was the last memory I had of her, 10 years ago.

She was 13 back then, but she had already suffered a lifetime of misery.

When Pekay was 9, her impoverished family sold her into marriage to a man old enough to be her grandfather. They needed to pay their rent — $80, a princely sum at the time – and so their landlord became Pekay’s husband. He brutalized her, so severely that she contemplated suicide.

As I wrote in a 2004 article for Knight-Ridder, Pekay was “one of thousands of girls and women who are trapped in forced marriages, caught between the rural, tribal and Islamic customs that ruled the country for centuries and the promise of a new Afghanistan ruled by laws that apply equally to everyone.”

The Afghanistan of 2004, as it is now under new President Ashraf Ghani, was one of great expectations. The Taliban Islamist regime had been ousted three years earlier by the U.S.-led intervention after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The nation had its first presidential elections, won by Hamid Karzai. Women voted in unprecedented numbers.

But none of that helped Pekay. Afghanistan’s laws made it illegal for girls younger than 16 to marry. Buoyed by the new hope across the nation, Pekay’s parents reported the abuse to the police and then tried to get her a divorce. But the court’s conservative clerics, who abided by Islamic law, ruled that she could not separate, even from a violent child molester.

Finally, though, the chief justice of the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the lower court – but only because he learned of the abuses committed against Pekay.

Pekay went back to her parents' house and to the life of a child – as best she could, anyway, after so much trauma. But the threat remained.

In my last conversation with her husband, he declared:

"I'll die before divorcing her. I can't force her to come back to my house, but I can make sure she won't marry again. One day she'll come back. She has to."

When I returned to Afghanistan last month to become The Washington Post’s bureau chief, I wanted to learn Pekay’s fate.

Today, domestic violence against women and girls is still widespread in Afghanistan. Many rural women are still forced into unhappy marriages every year. The legal system remains weak and corrupt.

Had Pekay managed to overcome all these obstacles?

Kabul has changed so much since I was last here that I couldn’t remember where Pekay and her parents lived.  After knocking on doors, we learned that the family had moved to a village north of Kabul. Last week, we drove there.

Pekay’s mother and father, frail and aging, welcomed me into their mud-brick house. They were so poor they could no longer afford to pay rent. They were staying in a compound of a cousin. Pekay’s father was nearly blind, staring through bottle-thick spectacles. Her mother was completely blind in her left eye. Pekay’s mentally ill brother was lying on a mattress, staring vacantly at the wall.

But Pekay was not there. When I asked about her, her mother’s face turned solemn. She informed me that Pekay had married again. Then, she asked me not to contact her.

“She’s happy now,” explained her mother. “And I want her to remain happy.”

The family, I learned, had not told Pekay’s new husband about her past. Divorce in Afghanistan is still considered a disgrace to the family and tribe, particularly in conservative rural areas. “Half of this village doesn’t even know,” said her mother. “We didn’t say anything about her past.”

Since Pekay’s divorce, the only potential suitors were old, disabled men, her mother explained. Four years ago, through some neighbors, her parents were introduced to a man in his 40s who ran a business and wanted a wife to bear him a son.

Pekay, who was 19, was of childbearing age. She had never attended school and spent her teenage years doing chores around the house. “We were too poor to send her to school,” her father said.

They were desperate to find Pekay a husband. They didn’t mind that her suitor was from a conservative ethnic Pashtun family and that they were ethnic Tajiks. They told him that she was a widow, and that her husband had been killed.

It was a large wedding, said her mother, adding that today Pekay has lots of clothes and plenty of food.

Most important, they never heard again from her ex-husband. “He never dared to show up and take her back,” said her mother.

When I asked what would happen if Pekay’s husband and her in-laws learned about her past, her mother replied:  “It would be a big problem. They would do something to her, probably.”

“We don’t want our daughter to suffer any more,” she continued. “She has suffered enough.”

I thanked her parents and left, satisfied with the knowledge that Pekay seemed to be in a happier place.