REPORTING FROM KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- A leading human rights group on Wednesday denounced the longstanding Afghan practice of jailing rape victims and girls or women who flee forced marriages, and called on the government to begin making a much more meaningful effort to enforce laws aimed at protecting women's rights.
The report by New York-based group Human Rights Watch comes amid rising fears that the plight of Afghan women will worsen as the NATO force winds down its military role and the United States and the Afghan government seek to draw the Taliban and other insurgent groups into peace negotiations.
About 400 Afghan women are imprisoned for "moral crimes" including running away from home or having sex outside marriage, provisions often used to prosecute victims of sexual assault or women who defy their families and try to marry someone of their own choosing. Although the number of such cases resulting in jail terms has dropped in recent years, Human Rights Watch called for those now serving sentences to be released.
Interviews conducted by the group with dozens of jailed women solicited wrenching tales of abusive marriages, being forced to wed in order to pay off family debts, or victims being accused of wrongdoing by judges and prosecutors when they tried to report attacks against them. Police also routinely return women who try to escape domestic abuse to their families, sometimes prompting even worse punishments, the group said.
Storai T., 17, told Human Rights Watch of being engaged at 12 to a stranger. When she learned he was a drug abuser, she begged her father to rescind the engagement, threatening to commit suicide if she were forced into the union. "Then go and kill yourself," she said he replied.
During the reign of the Taliban in the 1990s, women were forbidden to work or leave their homes unaccompanied by a male relative -- and then only if clad in an all-enveloping burka. Although women have made strides in education and the workplace since the toppling of the Taliban in the U.S.-led invasion of 2001, the criminal justice system has lagged in safeguarding women's rights.
Human rights groups have called repeatedly for the enforcement of a 2009 law that criminalizes abuse of women. In recent months, several cases of domestic abuse garnered widespread attention, including a teenage bride in northern Afghanistan whose in-laws locked her in a filthy room, burned her and pulled out her hair and fingernails. In another case, a man was accused of strangling his wife after she gave birth to a baby girl instead of a boy as he had wanted.
Earlier this year, President Hamid Karzai alarmed activists for women when his office endorsed a report by an influential council of Muslim clerics that said men and women should not mix in the workplace or the classroom, and -- in an echo of Taliban-era decrees -- said women should not appear in public unaccompanied by a male relative.
-- Laura King
Photo: President Hamid Karzai speaks during a women;s rights ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan on Nov. 24, 2010. Credit: Musadeq Sadeq / Associated Press