More women imprisoned for 'moral crimes' as fears grow that hard-won rights are at risk as western troops head home
The number of Afghan women jailed for fleeing forced and abusive marriages, and other "moral crimes", has soared since 2011, according to Human Rights Watch.
About 600 women and girls are in prison for offences including running away from their husband or family, even though fleeing abuse is not a crime under Afghan law. Eighteen months ago, 400 women were being held for such "moral crimes", the rights group said, quoting figures from the ministry of interior, which runs the country's jails.
The report was released days after Afghanistan's parliament failed to pass a landmark law protecting women from violence, because religious conservatives rejected key provisions including a minimum marriage age of 16 for girls.
There are growing concerns that hard-won rights for women are under threat as western troops head home, taking with them much of the scrutiny and some of the funds that have helped support progress since the fall of the Taliban over a decade ago.
More than half of Afghanistan's female prisoners are in jail for "moral crimes", and their numbers are rising faster than the overall numbers of women in detention, despite a shaky legal basis for many of their sentences.
Prisoners interviewed by Human Rights Watch said the women had fled their homes in a bid to escape abuse, including underage marriage, beatings, stabbings, burnings and forced prostitution. Often they were subjected to unscientific "virginity tests" after their arrest, which the report said amounted to a cruel and degrading form of sexual assault.
Running away is not illegal under the Afghan criminal code, but the country's supreme court has ordered the prosecution of women who flee their families. Senior government officials have confirmed it is not a crime but those views have not translated into policy, Human Rights Watch said, calling on the president to free all women jailed for leaving home.
Rape victims are also imprisoned for "forced adultery" because sex outside marriage is a crime in Afghanistan and judges and prosecutors ignored questions of consent. And in all but a handful of the cases there was no investigation of the abuse that prompted the women to flee, while prosecution or punishment were even rarer.
"Twelve years after Taliban rule, women are still imprisoned for being victims of forced marriage, domestic violence, and rape," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The Afghan government needs to get tough on abusers of women, and stop blaming women who are crime victims."
One bright spot is a modest increase in the number of shelters for abused women since 2011, but there still are none in conservative southern Afghanistan, and all of the existing safe houses are dependent on foreign funds.
The Afghan government is ambivalent at best about the shelters, which the justice minister denounced as little more than brothels, and has shown no sign it is willing to pay for them.
"Afghanistan's donors have a crucial role to play in supporting shelters that are literally life-saving for many women," Adams said. "They should not only help ensure the survival of the shelters that exist, but support expansion of the shelter system including in southern Afghanistan."
A landmark law for the elimination of violence against women, enacted by presidential decree in 2009 but never ratified by parliament, was put to a vote last week by women's rights advocates who hoped to strengthen it with a popular debate ahead of a change of leadership next year.
The law bans more than 20 forms of violence against women, including child marriage, forced marriage, buying and selling women for marriage, giving away women to settle disputes and forced self-immolation.
But after bitter debates over issues such as enforcing a minimum marriage age, which religious conservatives said was un-Islamic, the legislation was shelved indefinitely. The United Nations called on the government to ensure that this "critical" law was implemented.
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