|Afghan women still face imprisonment for so-called moral crimes such as adultery or running away from home
The Afghan government has announced it is to take over the running of women's shelters despite concerns from human-rights groups that such a move could put lives at risk.
The safe houses are run by foreign and Afghan charities to protect women from domestic violence, but some conservatives and religious leaders accuse them of being fronts for prostitution or set up to remove women from their families.
"The government of Afghanistan, after investigating the status of the safe houses, has proposed a regulation that authorises the ministry of women's affairs to assume control over all existing women's shelters in Afghanistan," Husun Bano Ghazanfar, Afghan women's affairs minister, said on Tuesday.
She said taking control of shelters was part of an "Afghanisation" process under which Afghan military and officials assume greater control of their war-torn country from the international community.
But human-rights groups sharply condemned the plans.
The proposal, which requires approval by Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, and his Council of Ministers to become law, would place all shelters under the control of the Ministry of Women's Affairs.
It would require women to undergo a medical examination before being admitted, oblige them to wear a headscarf at all times and bar them from leaving the grounds of the safe house except with ministry permission to visit relatives.
Medical examinations would be carried out monthly, and women would be ejected if their families say they will take them back or for marriage, the guidelines said, without clarifying if this included abusive families they had fled or forced marriages they were trying to avoid.
Women suspected or accused for so-called moral crimes such as adultery or running away from home would not be admitted to shelters - according to the guidelines.
"It puts the safety of women in shelters into question," Humi Safi of Women for Afghan Women, an Afghan rights group, said.
US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) group says the move could endanger lives by paving the way for the possible expulsion of women as well as compulsory forensic examinations for those staying in the shelters.
|Rights groups say the proposal is a concession to the Taliban [EPA]
"The Afghan government claims that taking over the shelters would lead to sustainable funding and better management but the real agenda is clear," Rachel Reid, an Afghanistan-based researcher for HRW, said.
"The government is increasingly dominated by hardline conservatives who are hostile to the very idea of shelters since they allow women some autonomy from abusive husbands and family members.
"A government shelter is far more likely to cave in to pressure from families and tribes to hand back the victims, which will put women's lives at risk."
Women's shelters were first opened in Afghanistan following the 2001 US-led invasion which overthrew the Taliban, which banned girls from going to school.
Almost a decade since its overthrow, the UN said in a 56-page report last year that child marriage and "honour" killings remained widespread and the authorities were failing to enforce laws to protect women and girls.
Ghazanfar, the Afghan women's affaris minister, said there were currently 11 registered shelters in Afghanistan housing 210 women and girls.
HRW said some of the 14 shelters currently working in Afghanistan faced closure because the government lacks the capacity to run them.
"It could be devastating," Reid said of the regulation.
While the constitution guarantees women's rights in Afghanistan, the deeply conservative country has a poor women's rights record and a nine-year uprising has fostered a fear of a return to Taliban rule.