KABUL, Afghanistan -- Even with some legal protections in place, Afghan women, and sometimes even little girls, can be sold to pay family debts. In the country's vast rural areas, just talking to a man who is not a close relative can be punishable by death. And in some places, girls are routinely married at puberty.
And now, preserving any protections long-term appears to be in question, as the country's tiny women's rights movement faces an unenviable decision: leave intact the only law that attempts to halt such abuses, or continue to present changes to Parliament and run the risk that a growing conservative bloc could dismantle the law entirely.
The quandary became evident on Saturday, when a bid to add more robust protections was rapidly withdrawn in Parliament after stinging rebukes. Angry mullahs and conservatives who never supported the law in the first place complained that it and the proposed revisions were un-Islamic and asked who could better decide than they who and when their daughters should marry.
Some women in Parliament were not supportive either, citing the measure's backing of shelters for battered women. Many Afghans believe shelters are little better than brothels and tarnish a girl's reputation.
To cut off the onslaught, the proposal was sent back to committee, its future uncertain.
The push to bring up the law in Parliament has split the small group of Afghan women's rights advocates. Despite fears of the conservatives, some argued that quick action had to be taken before the exit of the United States, which, along with the European Union, has championed better lives and protections for Afghan women.
But others resisted. "We know who is in the Parliament," said Soraya Sobrang, a women's rights activist and part of a hastily organized effort to stop the law from coming up in Parliament, referring to the former militia commanders, mullahs and other conservatives who take a dim view of many Western-backed protections for women. What would stop them, she asked, "from pulling a list from their back pocket" of changes that would weaken the protections against child marriage or even rape?
The drive to amend the law was led by one of Afghanistan's more visible champions for women's issues: Fawzia Koofi, a determined, ambitious woman who gained a seat in Parliament in 2005 and in 2010, survived an attempt on her life by gunmen thought to be Taliban.
"There is a step back on women's issues," Ms. Koofi said, explaining her drive to revise the law in the plenary session of Parliament this weekend. "The government used to be more supportive."
Ms. Koofi is a somewhat controversial figure. Closely allied with the predominantly Tajik former Northern Alliance faction in Parliament, she has sometimes been criticized as pursuing policies for her own political gain. However, she insisted that her motivation to amend the women's law was to help solidify it, though not all supporters of women's rights here agree.
Ms. Koofi said the proposed changes would allow the government to prosecute cases of abuse even when the woman who had been abused withdrew her claim. Women frequently come under family pressure to drop complaints of domestic violence.
Ms. Koofi said she also added a provision prohibiting sexual harassment, calling it increasingly pervasive as more women go to work in offices. And, she said, she included a provision to require men to pay women child support if they leave them or take other wives. No written version of the amendments was publicly available, so it was difficult to verify their contents or wording.
The law -- the Elimination of Violence Against Women Act -- was issued in 2009 as a decree by President Hamid Karzai. In a first for the country, it outlined basic protections from practices common throughout Afghanistan, including child marriage, forced marriage, physical abuse and the practice of giving women in marriage to settle disputes between families, called baad.
Ms. Koofi said her prime worry was that, with elections due in less than a year, the law might be annulled by a new president. Parliament's endorsement would enshrine it more securely, she argued.
"If we wait for the best moment when there is no opposition, we will wait forever," she said. "Our worry is that things will get worse after 2014, and there's no guarantee that the next president will support the women's issues. We should have done it even earlier."
Women who opposed Ms. Koofi's gambit said they were resigned that it might already be too late to do more in Parliament than safeguard the current law.
"It's gambling with the law with this kind of Parliament," said Mahbooba Saraj, a women's advocate who joined a news conference at the offices of the Afghan Women's Network, one of the larger women's rights organizations here, to urge that Parliament remove discussion of the act from its agenda this weekend. "It's a gamble with the lives of Afghan women."
Last week, the Afghan Women's Network, along with a number of Kabul-based civil society organizations, began sending out alarmed e-mails to embassies and international organizations, as well as reporters, to rally opposition to the effort to revise the law.
Western diplomats in Kabul also strongly advised Ms. Koofi not to push ahead with a full debate unless she was absolutely sure that the law could be protected from evisceration.
Georgette Gagnon, the head of the human rights office for the United Nations here, who has studied the law's implementation, described taking the measure before the Parliament as "fraught with all kinds of risk."
"Ultimately, the losers could be millions of Afghan women," she said.The existing law is far from ideal. Human rights lawyers say it lacks a definition of honor crimes and offers little clarity on how the police or prosecutors should treat a woman who runs away from home to escape violence. Often a woman who flees is imprisoned on charges that she intended to commit adultery; numerous women interviewed in jails by the United Nations for its 2012 report on the law's enforcement said they left home to avoid a forced marriage or domestic violence. And women come under enormous family pressure to drop any charge of domestic violence they might have managed to press.
Enforcement remains woefully insufficient: in the first full year of implementation from 2010 to 2011, courts relied on the law in just 4 percent of the 2,299 reported episodes that could be defined as crimes under the law, according to a November 2011 report by the United Nations human rights division. However, prosecutors have begun to usee the law, especially in the larger urban areas like Kabul and Herat, and human rights groups hope that as prosecutors become familiar with it, they will rely on it more frequently.
At a minimum, the law provides a basic set of protections for women that prosecutors, judges, lawyers for women and women's advocates can look to in determining whether prosecutable abuses have occurred.
"The potential risk of opening this Pandora's box is enormous," said Heather Barr, the director of the Human Rights Watch office for Afghanistan, referring to the risks inherent in letting the full Parliament reconsider each provision.
"Just look at a photograph of the Parliament; what planet would you have to be on to think that they would vote to send themselves to prison if they married off their under-aged daughter, or send themselves to jail if they beat their wives?"
Jawad Sukhanyar and Rod Nordland contributed reporting from Kabul.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.