Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative and male-dominated society, meaning women are still sold to husbands and rights enshrined in law are often ignored in practice. — Photo by Reuters

KABUL: A law meant to protect Afghan women from a host of abusive practices, including rape, forced marriage and the trading of women to settle disputes, is being undermined by spotty enforcement, the UN said in a report released Wednesday.

Afghanistan's Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women was passed in August 2009, raising hopes among women's rights activists that Afghan women would get to fight back against abuses that had been ignored under Taliban rule.

The law criminalised many abuses for the first time, including domestic violence, child marriage, driving a woman to resort to suicide and the selling and buying of women.

Yet the report found only a small percentage of reported crimes against women are pursued by the Afghan government.

Between March 2010 and March 2011 — the first full Afghan year the law was in effect — prosecutors opened 594 investigations involving crimes under the law.

That's only 26 per cent of the 2,299 incidents registered by the Afghan human rights commission, the report said. And prosecutors went on to file indictments in only 155 cases, or seven per cent of the total number of crimes reported.

Sometimes victims were pressured to withdraw their complaints or to settle for mediation by traditional councils, the report said. Sometimes prosecutors didn't proceed with mandatory investigations for violent acts like rape or prostitution. Other times, police simply ignored complaints.

In one such instance in Kandahar in March, a woman reported that after her daughter got married, in-laws used the young woman as an unpaid servant and forced her into having sex with visiting men. She committed suicide by setting herself on fire in her room and the mother brought the case to the police.

The UN report said police recorded the mother's complaint but made no attempt to investigate even though the law specifies that all cases where a woman is suspected of being driven to kill herself by self-immolation require investigation even without a lodged complaint.

Self-immolation is one of the most common methods that Afghan women use to commit suicide. Women who set themselves on fire and survive often describe it as an act of desperation, something they were driven to do by the feeling that there was no other escape.

An official with the Afghan attorney general's office rejected the UN report but did not respond directly to its specific accusations that authorities were failing to investigate all reported crimes.

''We have a law covering issues of violence against women. If someone breaks that law, they are prosecuted,'' said Rahmatullah Nasery, the deputy attorney general. He said the attorney general's office has acted on ''dozens of complaints.''

Asked about women being pressured to withdraw complaints, Nasery said that this was a choice made by women on their own.

''If the woman wants to make a complaint, we act on it. But it is the right of the woman not to file a complaint,'' he said.

Though women's rights were most visibly suppressed under Taliban rule, when girls' schools were banned and women could only leave the house accompanied by a male family member, Afghan women have continued to struggle for justice and equality in the country's patriarchal culture.

''As long as women and girls are subject to violence with impunity that violates their human rights, little meaningful and sustainable progress for women's rights can be achieved in Afghanistan,'' said Georgette Gagnon, the UN's director for human rights in Afghanistan.

She argued that shortcomings in the law's enforcement could make it harder to bring women into the larger discussion of how to put an end to the decade of fighting in Afghanistan.

''Advances in women's opportunities in public life, including in the peace process, includes implementation of this law,'' Gagnon said, noting that women cannot advocate for themselves if they cannot trust in the government to protect them.

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