The number of Afghan women and girls jailed for "moral crimes" – which include being a victim of rape, running away from an abusive home or marriage — has risen dramatically in the past 18 months.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said 600 females are now detained under moral crime charges, with the number of females behind bars jumping by 50 percent since late 2012.
Many women who report rapes to police find themselves arrested for adultery, and many who flee violent abuse or forced marriages are jailed for running away from home, though that is not a crime under Afghanistan's criminal code, said Phelim Kine, Human Rights Watch deputy director for Asia.
"The majority of women and girls imprisoned for moral crimes are actually victims themselves," Kine said. A report by Oxfam earlier this year, found that 87 per cent of Afghan women had been forced into unwanted marriages and were victims of sexual and physical abuse.
HRW said that in Afghanistan women who run away from their homes are considered criminals in the eyes of the country's judges, as well as members of its Supreme Court. Those who run away to escape rape and other assaults have been charged with looking for sex outside marriage, known as zina in Afghanistan.
Of the 600 females now detained for moral crimes, about 110 are girls under 18, almost all of them charged with running away from home, said HRW's Afghanistan researcher, Heather Barr. Many police and prosecutors cite provisions of Sharia (Islamic) law to order the detentions based on intent to commit adultery.
The number of women and girls jailed for alleged loose morals is the highest since the ouster of the Muslim fundamentalist Taliban regime in a U.S.-backed invasion in 2001, Barr said.
Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW said, "Twelve years after Taliban rule, women are still imprisoned for being victims of forced marriage, domestic violence, and rape. The Afghan government needs to get tough on abusers of women, and stop blaming women who are crime victims."
The Taliban, who were known for their harsh treatment of women during their five-year reign, ordered beatings for women who failed to wear the full-body burqa garment in public and banned them from leaving their homes without a male relative.
Activists fear that hard-won women's rights, one of the most visible improvements since the invasion, are in danger of eroding in Afghanistan, where many people remain deeply conservative and opposed to human rights measures they see as imposition of Western values.
The report came three days after conservative parliamentarians fiercely opposed ratifying a presidential decree on protection of violence against women, rejecting provisions banning child marriage, domestic violence and jailing of rape victims as un-Islamic.
Barr said the sharp increase in prosecutions for moral crimes could be related to religious conservatives feeling more confident with the departure of international troops. Most foreign forces will leave by the end of 2014.
Sorya, a young prisoner told HRW that at the age of 12 she was forced to marry a man who constantly abused her. After nine years of marriage and three children, he accused her of running away with another man whom she says she had never even met.
Sorya who was pregnant at the time of her arrest, served a five and half years in prison. Three weeks after giving birth in prison, her baby died.
Human Rights Watch called on President Hamid Karzai to issue a decree banning police from jailing girls for running away from home. It also called on international donors to focus on preserving gains in womens rights after 2014.