KABUL For Afghan women, the act of fleeing domestic abuse, forced prostitution or even being stabbed repeatedly with a screwdriver by an abusive husband, may land them in jail while their abusers walk free, Human Rights Watch said.
Running away is considered a "moral crime" for women in Afghanistan while some rape victims are also imprisoned, because sex outside marriage - even when the woman is forced - is considered adultery, another "moral crime".
"From the first time I came to this world my destiny was destroyed," 17-year-old Amina, who has spent months in jail after being forced into prostitution, told researchers from Human Rights Watch in a report published on Wednesday.
Despite progress in women's rights and freedom since the fall of the Taliban a decade ago, women throughout the country are at risk of abduction, rape, forced marriage and being traded as commodities.
It can be hard for women to escape violence at home because of huge social pressure and legal risks to stay in marriages.
"The treatment of women and girls accused of 'moral crimes' is a black eye on the face of the post-Taliban Afghan government and its international backers, all of whom promised that respect for women's rights would distinguish the new government from the Taliban," the New York-based group said.
"This situation has been further undermined by President (Hamid) Karzai's frequently changing position on women's rights. Unwilling or unable to take a consistent line against conservative forces within the country, he has often made compromises that have negatively impacted women's rights."
The influential rights organization said that there were about 400 women and girls being held in Afghanistan for "moral crimes", and they rarely found support from authorities in a "dysfunctional criminal justice system".
The plight of a woman called Nilofar illustrates the problem. She was stabbed repeatedly with a screwdriver in the head, chest, and arms by her husband who accused her of adultery for inviting a man into the house, the rights group said.
But afterwards, she was arrested, he was not.
"The way he beat her wasn't bad enough to keep him in jail. She wasn't near death, so he didn't need to be in prison," the prosecutor of the case told Human Rights Watch.
"HE WILL KILL ME"
The dire treatment of women was the main reason Western countries gave for refusing to recognize the Taliban government as legitimate when it was in power.
As Afghan and Western leaders seek a negotiated end to more than 10 years of war, the future for women is uncertain.
The United States and NATO - who are fighting an unpopular war as they prepare to pull out most combat troops by the end of 2014 - have stressed that any settlement must ensure the constitution, which says the two sexes are equal, is upheld.
A law, passed in August 2009, supports equality for women, including criminalizing child and forced marriage, selling and buying women for marriage or for settling disputes, as well as forced self-immolation, among other acts.
But women, especially in rural areas, lack shelters to flee abuse while only one percent of police are female, according to the report based on interviews from October to November with 58 women and girls as well as prosecutors, judges, government officials and civil society.
The ordeal for women does not stop with jail though.
Once leaving prison, women and girls face strong social stigma in the conservative country and may be killed in so-called "honor killings".
"I just want a divorce. I can't go back to my father because he will kill me. All my family has left me behind," 20-year-old Aisha, who was sentenced to three years for fleeing an abusive husband she was forced to marry, told researchers.
(Reporting by Jack Kimball; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Robert Birsel)