KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan women and girls accused of so-called moral crimes are often forced to endure invasive and scientifically questionable "virginity tests" by government doctors, according to human rights advocates.
Improving the lives and rights of women remains a major challenge in Afghanistan nearly 15 years after a U.S.-backed military campaign ousted the Taliban's hardline Islamist regime.
Of 53 woman and girls interviewed in a dozen provinces across Afghanistan, 48 said they had been subject to compulsory gynecological exams by government officials after being accused of adultery or escaping from home, investigators for Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission found in a study conducted last year.
The study's findings were publicized by Human Rights Watch on Monday.
"Since gynecological tests are conducted without consent of the victim, it can be considered sexual harassment and human rights violation," the commission concluded, noting that the tests violate the spirit of the Afghan constitution as well as international principles.
In most cases the tests, which can include invasive genital as well as anal exams, are carried out in the presence of male guards and others, and often amount to "torture" with "horrible effects and consequences," the report found.
The tests claim to verify whether a woman has been sexually active outside of marriage, but the veracity of the exams has been widely debunked by scientists.
The report said the tests lacked a scientific basis.
Girls as young as 13 were among those who reported being forced to endure the tests, and a number of the women were accused merely of leaving their homes without permission, which is not a crime under Afghan law. More than a third of the women reported being examined more than once.
In a conservative culture where great value is attached to a woman's virginity, the "aggressive" exams can damage a woman's personal dignity, emotional health, and social status, the report warned.
In some cases, women unable to prove they were virgins on their wedding day have faced violence, and some have been killed, the commission said.
"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 in Afghanistan are jailed on spurious 'moral crimes' accusations," Human Rights Watch senior researcher Heather Barr said in a statement.
She joined the Human Rights Commission in calling for the government to explicitly ban such tests and to end arrests of women accused of trying to leave their homes.