12/06/2011 09:06 EST | Updated 02/05/2012 05:12 EST

Canadian Soldiers Couldn't Save Afghan Rape Victim

Anyway you look at it, it's hard to imagine a more outrageous case than the 21-year-old woman in Afghanistan being sent to prison because she was raped.

The story has been newsworthy for some time now, but every time one reads or hears about it, it somehow gets worse.

To recap: The woman, identified only as Gulnaz, was initially sentenced to two years in prison for adultery after she was raped and impregnated. She appealed -- and the sentence was boosted to 12 years.

She then was told she would be freed if she agreed to marry the rapist, who was already married.

Gulnaz has already spent two and a half years in prison for her "offence" -- an offence that apparently has hundreds of women in Afghan jails whose crime is that they were raped.

In Gulnaz's case, public pressure (mostly from abroad and from human rights groups) forced Afghan President Hamid Karzai to become involved. He initially ordered Gulnaz released on condition that there be mediation between her and the guy who raped her.

What sort of "mediation" one wonders? Like a marriage counsellor, perhaps? Maybe mullahs seeking to convince the woman that this was love at first sight by the rapist, who was so beguiled by her burka, or silhouette, that he couldn't restrain himself?

Who knows? Under Sharia law, the rape victim generally seems to be at fault for what happens to her, because somehow she's a temptress.

Apparently, Gulnaz reluctantly agreed to marry her rapist -- not to get herself out of prison, but so her child wouldn't be branded "a bastard." That, too, is outrageous.

The BBC has since reported that President Karzai has granted the woman a full pardon, with no conditions. She can marry whoever she want. Chalk one up for international condemnation.

The case first came to public attention when a documentary being funded by the European Union to highlight the plight of Afghan women was cancelled for fear that such publicity would rebound on Gulnaz. Also, because the EU feared the film might offend the Afghan regime.

Documentary or no documentary, the raped woman's case has reverberated around the world, invoking varying degrees of horror.

It makes one wonder about our role in Afghanistan. For close to 10 years Canadian soldiers have been putting their lives on line to help the country, with 158 Canadians killed in the process. Killed for what? To put raped women in jail?

Despite optimistic rhetoric from those in command, progress in human rights seems negligible. In 2002, when the Princess Pats first arrived in Afghanistan, they built schools and insisted that girls by included. Sometimes reluctantly, village elders agreed. But changing cultural habits is slow -- and really not the role of soldiers.

Now our combat role in Afghanistan is finished. The thousand or so soldiers left are training the Afghan National Army, and the question raised again is whether the mission has been worthwhile, considering the barbaric cultural mores of Afghanistan?

Honour killings, death by stoning and imprisoning pregnant rape victims seem more the normal than aberrations. Look at the trial in Kingston, where an Afghan father and son are charged with killing three daughters and first wife -- presumably for "honour."

Changing cultural habits can be a slow and evolutionary process. Put bluntly, we kid ourselves if we think our involvement will persuade Afghans that women are the equal of men.