The number of women jailed in Afghanistan for “moral crimes” such as fleeing abusive husbands has risen sharply, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday, undermining claims that the status of women has improved.
The campaign group said interior ministry statistics revealed that the number of women and girls convicted of “moral crimes” in the war-torn country increased by 50 percent over 18 months from 400 to 600.
According to the HRW report, most of the 600 women in jail were victims of sexual assault and family violence who had run away from their attackers.
“Four years after the adoption of a law on violence against women and 12 years after Taliban rule, women are still imprisoned for being victims of forced marriage, domestic violence and rape,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of HRW.
Just three days ago parliament cut short a debate on the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law, which was passed by presidential decree in 2009, after traditionalist MPs complained it was un-Islamic.
One prisoner named Sorya told HRW she was forced to wed at the age of 12 and was abused by her husband.
After nine years of marriage and three children, he accused her of running away with another man whom she had never even met.
HRW said Sorya was serving a sentence of five and half years in prison. She was pregnant at the time of her arrest, and her baby died in prison three weeks after he was born.
HRW director Phelim Kine said the latest figures suggested that Afghan authorities may feel they no longer need to support women’s rights as international troops prepare to withdraw from the country next year.
“International donors have made scrupulous plans for the military and security future of Afghanistan, but have completely neglected the need for protection and defence of women and girls’ rights after 2014,” he said.
HRW called on President Hamid Karzai to issue a decree clarifying that “running away” was not a crime under Afghan law, and for the interior ministry to ensure the EVAW law was fully enforced nationwide.
The law bans violence against women, child marriage and forced marriages, and is considered one of Karzai’s key achievements since the 1996-2001 Taliban era, when women were banned from school or any form of public activity.
The United Nations, the European Union and the United States all cite advances for Afghan women, such as the law, as a symbol of successful international intervention since 2001, but stress that such progress is fragile.
Activists fear that MPs want to water down the law, or even throw it out completely.
HRW warned that any such moves would seriously threaten future international aid to Afghanistan, as the country struggles for stability after the NATO-led military mission winds down by the end of next year.
The report added that accused women and girls are often subjected to “virginity tests” that it described as cruel, inhuman and degrading.
“Afghan police, without any scientific basis, are routinely forcing these unspeakable examinations on women and girls,” Adams said.
The interior ministry in Kabul said it was preparing a response to the report.