Kabul: Human Rights Watch has slammed "virginity exams" conducted on Afghan women and girls accused of so-called moral crimes, saying the invasive tests by government doctors were tantamount to sexual assault.
Women face growing levels of violence and harassment in Afghanistan more than 14 years after the Islamist Taliban regime was toppled from power by a 2001 US-led invasion.
Of 53 women and girls as young as 13 accused of pre-marital sex - punishable by up to 15 years in jail - 48 were subjected to virginity exams, Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission found in a recent study.
Nearly half of them were examined more than once, often in the presence of multiple people, according to the study which was highlighted in a new HRW report yesterday.
"These so-called virginity exams are not just demeaning - they constitute sexual assault and are often used as evidence against women in court for the 'crime' of zina, or sex outside of marriage," said HRW researcher Heather Barr.
"The continued use of degrading and unscientific virginity exams by the Afghan government is part of a broader pattern of abuses in which women and girls are jailed on spurious 'moral crimes' accusations, often in situations where they are fleeing forced marriage or domestic violence."
Virginity testing is a widely discredited practice in several conservative Islamic nations. In 2014 the World Health Organisation issued guidelines that the test had "no scientific validity".
"The Afghan government should end arrests (for moral crimes) entirely and reform the law that permits them. Banning all 'virginity exams' could be an important first step toward reform," Barr said.
Afghanistan has witnessed a sea change in women's rights since the ousting of the Taliban regime, with female lawmakers and even pilots now commonplace.
But gender equality remains a distant dream amid endemic violence against women and strong patriarchal attitudes.