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KABUL (Reuters) - Millions of Afghan women and girls suffer from traditional practices such as child marriage and "honour" killings, and authorities fail to enforce laws protecting them, the United Nations said on Thursday.
A report by the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) found that women's rights were being violated throughout Afghanistan, almost a decade after the strict Islamist Taliban regime was ousted.
The Taliban barred women from education and most work, ordered them to wear burqas outside the home and restricted their movement. Foreign and Afghan forces have been fighting an Islamist insurgency since 2001.
In August 2009, Afghanistan enacted the Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women, which criminalises many harmful practices, but some authorities were unaware of the law and many were unwilling or unable to apply it, the report said.
"Ensuring rights for Afghan women ... requires not only legal and constitutional safeguards on paper, but more importantly, speedy and adequate enforcement," Georgette Gagnon, director of human rights for UNAMA, said in a statement.
"The Afghan police and judiciary require far more guidance, support and oversight from national-level authorities on how to properly apply the law," she said. The UNAMA report uses research done during 2010 in 29 of the country's 34 provinces.
The law makes illegal practices including the selling or buying of women for marriage, forced or child marriage, denying the right to education, work and access to health services.
UNAMA said that while there were several weaknesses in the law, which does not criminalise "honour" killings of women seen to have shamed the family's name, it urgently needed to be implemented and necessary revisions could be made later.
Child marriage is widespread and the report said women in Balkh province quoted a popular saying: "If you hit a girl with your hat and she doesn't fall over, it's time to marry her."
When women and girls run away from home to escape abuse they are often arrested, jailed and prosecuted even though running away is not a crime. The report said they are usually charged with intent to have sex outside of marriage.
It said studies had found that half the Afghan female prison population -- 300 women -- had been detained for "moral crimes."
Although illegal, the report found that the practice of giving away girls to settle disputes was prevalent throughout the country and, while there were no official figures, studies showed that half of all Afghan girls were married by the age of 15.
"Many Afghans, including some religious leaders, reinforce these harmful customs by invoking their interpretation of Islam," found the report, which noted that most practices were not only crimes under Afghan law, but also inconsistent with sharia law.
It said the number of women committing suicide by setting themselves on fire, or self-immolation, was a growing trend in some parts of Afghanistan. The doctor in charge of Afghanistan's only burn unit -- in the western city of Herat -- was quoted as saying the main cause was forced marriage.
"Young women married to old men, sold, swapped for sheep or even opium ... Under pressure from abusive husbands and mothers-in-law they sometimes go to mullahs and community councils to ask for help, but even there they face humiliation and abuse," the unidentified doctor said.
Editing by Paul Tait and Sanjeev Miglani