Afghan parliament halts debate on women's rights law

Afghan women walk through the street in Kabul Hundreds of people have been jailed under the current law to prevent violence against women

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A debate by Afghan MPs about beefing up a law to prevent violence against women has been halted amid angry scenes.

Parliament's speaker ended the debate after 15 minutes after traditionalists called for the law to be scrapped.

A law banning violence against women, child marriages and forced marriages was passed by presidential decree in 2009, but did not gain MPs' approval.

Hundreds of people have been jailed under the current law, introduced by President Hamid Karzai.

'Lack of assurance'

The decision to seek parliamentary approval for the law had split women activists.

Some had said opening it up for debate in parliament could pave the way for conservatives to amend it and weaken protection for women - or even throw it out altogether.

One of those against the move was prominent MP Farkhunda Zahra Naderi. She told the BBC after Saturday's events in parliament that her fears had been proved right.

Analysis

Afghanistan's Law to Eliminate Violence Against Women, remains in force. It was signed by President Karzai in 2009 and did not need parliamentary approval.

But nothing is certain in this young democracy, and those who brought it to parliament, led by a potential presidential candidate, Fawzia Koofi, wanted it approved there so it was irreversible. But women activists who feared that debating it would give a platform to the most fundamentalist voices were proved right. Its withdrawal for now puts further progress on women's rights into legal limbo.

There have been hundreds of successful prosecutions under the law - some resulting in jail terms. But changing attitudes in the Afghan countryside will take more than a change in the law, and the failed debate will strengthen the hand of fundamentalists who see the law as opposed to Sharia.

During the debate, mullahs and other traditionalist MPs accused President Karzai of acting against Islamic Sharia law by signing the decree in the first place, the BBC's David Loyn reports from Kabul.

In particular, they demanded a change to the law so that men cannot be prosecuted for rape within marriage, our correspondent said.

One of those who had sought to enshrine the decree with parliamentary approval is leading MP Fawzia Koofi, who survived a Taliban ambush two years ago.

She had worried that if the law did not have parliamentary backing it could be weakened as Afghan leaders attempt to pacify the Islamist Taliban movement.

"There is a lack of assurance that any president of Afghanistan will have any commitment to women's issues and in particular towards this decree," Ms Koofi told the BBC before the debate.

President Karzai has come under fire from women's groups for frequently changing his position on women's rights.

In 2012, he endorsed a "code of conduct" issued by an influential council of clerics which allows husbands to beat wives under certain circumstances.

Ms Koofi and fellow activists have argued that the law is similar to those in many other Islamic countries.

The existing law will now remain in force while further discussions on procedure are held, our correspondent says.

Despite the efforts taken to enhance rights for women and girls in Afghanistan, child marriages remain common and stories of abuse keep coming to light.

Most Afghans still live in rural areas, where poverty, conflict and conservative attitudes are more likely to keep girls and women at home.

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