By Golnar Motevalli | KABUL, Dec 7 (Reuters)
-- Afghan women (picture) are among the worst off in the world, violence against them is "endemic" and Afghanistan's government fails to protect them from crimes such as rape and murder, a rights group said on Monday.
Human Rights Watch said in a report the situation for women in Afghanistan is "dismal in every area".
"Women will not seek help because of their fears of police abuse and corruption, or their fears of retaliation by perpetrators of violence," said the 96-page report, which is based on 120 interviews from different Afghan provinces.
Afghanistan is a deeply conservative, Muslim country where women have only been allowed to return to work and education since 2001, when the Taliban were overthrown by U.S.-led forces.
"Whereas the trend had clearly been positive for women's rights from 2001-2005, the trend now is negative in many areas ... it is a reflection of the power of conservative leaders who want to deny women their basic rights," the report said.
The report cites cases where rapists have been pardoned by the government, girls and women have been imprisoned for running away from home, rape victims have been charged with adultery and where women in public life have been murdered.
It comes a week after the United Nations said violence and rape against women in Afghanistan was a problem of "profound proportions".
When President Hamid Karzai was first elected president of Afghanistan in 2004, he appointed three women ministers. Five years on, the minister for women's affairs is the last remaining female in the cabinet.
The report's author said Karzai's reliance on support from powerful former warlords has further restricted women from making progress in Afghan society and government, and attacks on women in public life seem to be worsening.
"There are definitely some negtive trends and attacks on women in public life is one of those," said Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher for the Washington-based rights group.
"As Karzai has weakened over the last few years he's got more dependent on warlords, whose views are not that different from the Taliban often and that has an effect on women."
A further sign that women's status in Afghanistan is declining, the report said, is the introduction of the Shi'ite Personal Status Law, which caused an international outcry because some of its articles were seen to legalise marital rape.
Last week U.S. President Barack Obama announced an additional 30,000 U.S. troops for Afghanistan. Reid said his silence on women's issues during his speech signalled that attacks against women in the war-riven country were permissible.
"It matters so much that on the presidential level, it matters from top to bottom that leaders in society, that men and women try to tackle the injustices that are meted out to women daily," Reid said.