Afghan law to be revised after pressure on women's rights

Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Monday ordered amendments to a proposed law criticised for eroding women's rights, as campaigners called for major changes to preserve progress made since the Taliban era.

The law, which was awaiting Karzai's signature after being passed by parliament, will now be amended after an international campaign backed by the European Union, Canada and several rights groups.

One article would have banned family members from testifying against male relatives in cases where women were abused.

"The law is sent back to the MoJ (ministry of justice) for amendment," Adela Raz, a presidential spokeswoman, told AFP, without giving details.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch group said it was "cautiously optimistic" after the news but added that multiple changes were necessary to prevent the law being a setback for women's rights.

"The government appears to be considering allowing voluntary testimony by family members, but we will have to see the language to judge," HRW researcher Heather Barr told AFP.

She added that the law may still prohibit family members from being compelled to give testimony, and the broad definition of "family" could cover a whole village community.

Barr said that unless the definition was changed, the legislation would undermine the 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women law -- the centrepiece of women's rights since the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001.

Under the Taliban, girls were banned from school and women were forced to wear burqas and prevented from taking part in any form of public activity.

Improved women's rights are seen as a key achievement of the 13-year international intervention in Afghanistan, and donor nations are pushing to cement progress before NATO troops withdraw by the end of this year.

- Backlash feared -

The United Nations has said that women's rights could already be deteriorating as attention on Afghanistan's development fades.

Rights campaigners fear religious conservatives are seeking to increase their influence and roll back advances in rights ahead of April's presidential elections to choose Karzai's successor and parliamentary elections in 2015.

"Although there is important mobilisation against violence against women, there is also a backlash," the Kabul-based Afghan Analysts Network research group said in a paper released after the government decision on Monday.

"Afghanistan remains a country where violence against women is -- if not permitted -- condoned," it added.

The proposed law had already been passed by both houses of parliament, which are dominated by conservatives and tribal chiefs.

"We commend President Karzai's decision," the US embassy said on Monday. "This is a welcome response to the concerns expressed by many Afghans and their international partners."

HRW had earlier called on Karzai not to sign the legislation, saying that it "let batterers of women and girls off the hook".

Several horrific cases of abuse have hit the headlines in recent years including teenager Sahar Gul, who was beaten and locked up in a toilet for five months after she defied her in-laws who tried to force her into prostitution.

In April last year a woman aged between 18 and 20 was shot dead by her father in a public execution overseen by local religious leaders to punish her for an alleged affair.

A separate draft law suggesting the reinstatement of public stoning for adultery was rejected by Karzai in November when the proposal became public.