Afghan women still suffer widespread abuses nearly two years after the Taliban, says human rights group

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The Independent Online

Afghan women are still the victims of widespread abuses, including forced marriage, rape and abduction, two years after the American-led invasion that threw out the repressive Taliban regime, according to Amnesty International.

Violent crimes causing "untold suffering" are perpetrated against women with the "active support or passive complicity of state agents, armed groups, families and communities," says an Amnesty report, published today.

Prosecution for violence against women is virtually absent, as is any protection for women who are at risk, it says.

Although it acknowledges that legal reforms and rebuilding the police force and judicial system are moving forward, Amnesty warns that "no clear strategy" exists to end discrimination or build a means of protecting women's rights.

The need to liberate Afghanistan's women from abuse by the Taliban government, which severely restricted their basic freedoms, was one of the motivating issues before the US-led forces launched their assault.

Under the Taliban, women had to remain covered from head to toe and were not allowed to work outside the home. Girls were barred from attending school.

Before the assault, the international community - especially politicians from the US-led alliance- made assurances that toppling the Taliban would help Afghan women realise their rights. The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, declared the restoration of women's rights would "not be negotiable".

However, the international community has failed to deliver on its promises so far, Amnesty's 48-page report concludes. Along with Afghanistan's US-backed transitional government, headed by Hamid Karzai, the international community has "proved unable to protect women".

"In certain instances, international intervention is perpetuating and condoning gender discrimination," says the report, entitled: "Afghanistan: No one listens to us and no one treats us as human beings. Justice denied to women". It said: "Protection and shelter for women at risk has not been created, and legal aid provision remains entirely inadequate."

The report highlights several abuses that Afghan women suffer, including the giving of girls and women in marriage as a means of settling disputes. Domestic violence - unchecked by the state - has driven some women to suicide; Afghan armed groups continue to carry out rapes with impunity.

In certain cases, there is evidence that officials from the Afghan police or national army - both still in relatively early stages of being set up - may be involved or colluding with abuses, it says, and women are frequently reluctant to speak out about for fear of reprisals and because of the social stigma surrounding sexual assault.

Amnesty cites reports of one incident in which a woman was detained at an army checkpoint and handed over to the commander of an armed group. "Her fate remained unknown, but it was understood that she would be transferred as a 'gift' to different commanders."

Amnesty's researchers received numerous reports of girls and women being physically abused in the home by male family members, and sometimes even killed by their relatives. They unearthed a report of a father who shot his daughter because she refused his choice of husband. When the district governor tried to bring the man to justice, he was given sanctuary by a militia to which he was affiliated.

In Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, families whose women had committed adultery or eloped were killed. In some regions, women are routinely detained for adultery or for attempting to assert their right - enshrined in Afghan law and international conventions - to marry a man of their choice.

Amnesty also cites a "clear pattern of widespread underage marriage of girls, particularly in rural areas. The report says it is relatively rare for girls to remain unmarried until they reach 16 years, the legal age for marriage. Some Afghan women told Amnesty researchers that girls as young as eight were being forcibly married off.

The report demands urgent action from the international community and the Afghan transitional government to ensure the protection of women is made a priority during the country's reconstruction.

It says the debate on the new constitution by a national assembly - the loya jirga, due in December - will provide an opportunity to enshrine women's rights in the country's laws.

As drafted, the constitution would ban forced marriages, bridal dowries and other discrimination and guarantee women's political rights. However, the government has little power to enforce those rights outside Kabul.