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By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Violence linked to culture was the main reason for a 20 percent rise in deaths and injuries of females in Afghanistan last year, U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan Jan Kubis said on Monday.
Despite an overall fall in annual civilian casualties in Afghanistan for the first time in several years, the United Nations said last month that more than 300 women and girls were killed and more than 560 injured during 2012.
"The majority is linked to domestic violence, tradition, culture of the country," Kubis told reporters at the United Nations in New York ahead of a debate on Afghanistan by the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday.
"Of course there are very clearly attacks on women's activists by the insurgency," he said. "Then there are unfortunate situations when indeed women are killed while doing their daily chores (by unexploded bombs)."
Western human rights advocates say cultural tradition is often used to justify abuse of women such as female genital mutilation and honour killings.
Afghanistan is a conservative Muslim country, where under Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001 women were forced to cover up and were banned from voting, most work and leaving their homes unless accompanied by a husband or male relative.
U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in late 2001 for refusing to hand over al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
As foreign forces prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014 after a more than decade-long war, the United Nations and rights groups are concerned human rights in Afghanistan, particularly those of women, will further deteriorate.
Afghan women have won back basic rights in education, voting and employment since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001, but fears are mounting that such freedoms could be traded away as Kabul seeks peace talks with the group.
Activists and some lawmakers have blamed the rise in violence against women on what they say is waning interest in women's rights on the part of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government, a claim Karzai denies.
The U.N. political mission in Afghanistan, led by Kubis, said in December that Afghanistan still had a long way to go in implementing the 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women, which made child marriage, forced marriage, rape and other violent acts criminal offenses.
"Our role as the U.N. will be very crucial in the post-2014 period," Kubis said on Monday. "We will be one of the promoters, advocates of what should be practices in a country that will be perhaps more traditional and will be coming back to its roots."
"The situation is of concern and will remain of concern," he said of violence against women and girls.
Women who pursue careers in conservative Afghanistan routinely face opposition in a society where often they are ostracized - or worse - for mixing with men other than husbands or relatives.
A U.N. policy-making body agreed on Friday to a declaration urging an end to violence against women and girls despite concerns from conservative Muslim countries and the Vatican about references to women's sexual and reproductive rights.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)