LONDON - Women are raped, murdered and abused with impunity all over Afghanistan despite the overthrow of the Taleban that was supposed to have ushered in a new era of rights for women, Amnesty International says.

The London-based rights group said entrenched feudal customs still meant Afghan men often treated women as chattels who could be abused at will without any fear of official retribution.

"Throughout the country, few women are exempt from violence or safe from the threat of it," Amnesty said in a report based on extensive interviews in Afghanistan.

"Husbands, brothers and fathers remain the main perpetrators of violence in the home but the social control and the power that they exercise is reinforced by both state authorities and informal justice systems," it added.

The report's author, Nazia Hussein, who travelled all over the country conducting interviews, said there was a deep sense of disappointment that matters had not improved since the US-led war which ousted the Taleban in late 2001.

"A lot of women told us they had hoped things would change rapidly for the better after the overthrow of the Taleban, so there is a sense of disappointment," she said.

"But on education, employment and security there is a feeling that generally things have not improved ... and in some cases have got worse," she added.

She cited the case of one woman in an arranged marriage, whose husband beat her from the wedding night onwards and through two pregnancies, who eventually ran away to her parents' home but was forced to return because of family pride.

Attempts to talk to men -- including government officials -- revealed at best verbal concern but no action and at worst the attitude that it was not a problem.

"It is about tribes and codes of conduct based on age-old customs, not religion," she said. "It is really, really important that this issue is flagged up -- especially in terms of donor states."

She said there were glimmers of hope, with women entering politics and starting to make their voices heard -- at least in some urban areas.

But in the outlying rural areas there was evidence that if anything matters had got worse.

The report said violence against women was openly tolerated and it was vital that the authorities stepped in to protect women -- not only from agents of the state but also private individuals and groups.

"Reform of the criminal justice system is integral to the protection of all Afghan women and it is the responsibility of the state to provide legal safeguards," it said.

Amnesty also urged the Afghan government to publicly condemn violence against women, actively promote their human rights and start a process of education to transform customs that treated women as an underclass.


- REUTERS