In the latest case that has attracted widespread attention both in Afghanistan and abroad, a court has set free three Afghans who were originally jailed for torturing a young female relative who had refused to become a prostitute.

Sahar Gul was sold and forced into marriage by her brother when she was about 13 or 14. When she refused to consummate the marriage, she was subjected to all kinds of physical torture by her husband and his family, including being beaten and imprisoned.

Gul's mother-in-law, sister-in-law and father-in-law were convicted and sentenced to 10 years in jail for the torture. But a court has reversed their convictions, a decision that has angered rights groups.

The issue is not only the Taliban in [Afghanistan], there are even some warlords who are actually allies of NATO, who still believe women should not participate on TV or participate in jobs. So the issue is a tribal issue and a cultural issue.

Souad Mekhennet, an author 

And now the Afghan government is under mounting pressure to do more to protect women. It delivered its response to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women but in the light of the case, human rights advocates have talked about worrying setbacks.

Al Jazeera's Jennifer Glasse reporting from Kabul went to meet tortured victim Sahar Gul, who she says is scared again.

"They tortured me when I was a kid, Why did they let them go? They should be punished and they should go back to jail," said Gul.

When Gul came to the world’s attention a year and a half ago, she was battered and bruised. She had spent months locked in a room. The family that had bought her for $5000 pulled out her hair, ripped off her nails and burned her with hot wires - all because she had refused to become a prostitute.

"When Sahar Gul’s attackers were convicted to 10 years in prison women’s rights activists here hailed it as an important step forward, accountability in a society where violence against women remains common," reported our correspondent. "The court’s reversal they say, is a part of a series of events here that shows women’s rights are under attack”.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released its first global review of violence against women. It found that about 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced sexual or physical violence - a problem it calls a public health epidemic.

As in the case of Sahar Gul, most of this violence is committed by an intimate partner around the world, with women in Southeast Asia, the most likely to have been subjected to violence by a partner.

So, is Afghanistan heading forwards or backwards on womens' rights? 
To discuss this, Inside Story, with presenter Sami Zeidan, is joined by guests: Noorjahan Akbar, women's rights activist; Sujatha Balachander, lawyer and member of the All India Women's Conference; and Souad Mekhennet, specialist on women’s issues in the Islamic world and the co-author of The Children of Jihad.

"I think it's unfair to say that the reason women have made some accomplishments in the last 11 years is because of the western intervention or necessarily because of the current [Afghan] governement ....

"Now we have, more than any other time in history, we have girls going to school, we have women going to the universities, we have women working in the media and working in the government, the number of female midwives have increased, women's access to healthcare has increased ....

"[So] this is why Afghan women are now scared because of the negotiations being made with terriorist groups that have no respect for women's rights."

- Noorjahan Akbar, women's rights activist

Source: Al Jazeera