A girl covers her face with a scarf during class in the town of Kunjak in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, February 21, 2011 (Photo: Reuters)
Afghanistan's president should ensure that the country's draft penal code upholds women's rights by banning "virginity exams" and outlawing the imprisonment of women and girls accused of so-called moral crimes, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday.
Improving the lives and rights of women remains a major challenge in Afghanistan nearly 15 years after a US-backed military campaign ousted the Taliban's hardline Islamist regime.
Afghan women and girls accused of "moral crimes" such as running away from home or having sex outside of marriage are often forced to endure invasive and scientifically questionable "virginity tests" by government doctors, HRW said.
The tests claim to verify whether a woman has been sexually active outside of marriage, but the veracity of the exams has been widely debunked by scientists.
"President Ghani should ensure that the new law upholds women's rights under both the Afghan constitution and international law, by removing all references to "moral crimes" and adding new provisions to protect women and girls from abuse," said HRW researcher Heather Barr in a statement.
Afghan government officials were not immediately available for comment.
HRW said in most cases women and girls accused of "moral crimes" were escaping forced marriage or domestic violence. In some instances those who had been raped were charged with having sex outside of marriage, the rights group added.
Despite Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's pledge to stop women and girls from being locked up for running away from home, Afghan police and prosecutors continue to arrest them, HRW said.
"President Ghani's promise to end the practice of arresting women and girls for "running away" is an important step forward for women's rights in Afghanistan", Barr said.
"But to make a real difference, the president needs to issue a clear and binding order that immediately changes how every police officer and prosecutor handles complaints against women and girls. For too long, women and girls fleeing violence have been treated as criminals while their abusers go free."
According to HRW estimates from 2013, half of imprisoned Afghan women and about 95 percent of girls in juvenile detention have been arrested on so-called moral crimes charges.