Afghanistan on Tuesday defended a government plan to take over running of shelters for abused women, saying many women were tricked into leaving home without good reason and warning the refuges are rife with corruption.
The plan triggered alarm among rights groups, who warn it will undo important progress made on women's rights since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban, by placing victims of abuse at the mercy of a state lacking resources and often subject to the influence of misogynist powerbrokers.
It follows accusations in the Afghan media that such shelters, run by foreign-funded non-governmental organisations, encourage immorality, prostitution and drug abuse.
Afghanistan's caretaker Minister for Women's Affairs, Dr Husn Banu Ghazanfar, said the government had found numerous "violations" in the running of shelters.
She suggested they were grossly over-funded and that it was unclear where the money had gone. Though conceding many women faced "problems" at home, Ghazanfar said some were "deceived" into leaving.
"Some of them haven't had any problems in their homes and later they apologise to their families and to us," she said.
Ghazanfar said she personally had no evidence of prostitution or drug abuse, but said such rumours had to be stopped.
"We won't let anyone do whatever they want under the name of a safe-house," Ghazanfar told a news conference. "We are able to defend the rights of our daughters and women."
The issue reflects suspicion in some segments of Afghanistan's conservative society about the influence of Westerners who poured into the country after 2001.
The new regulation, which needs cabinet approval, would see victims of domestic abuse subjected to compulsory forensic examination, barred from leaving without ministry approval and registered with the police.
They can be evicted if they are "accepted" back by relatives, or upon marriage, which for many Afghan women is forced. Some run to shelters to escape unwanted husbands.
Women suspected or accused of crimes would not be admitted. But running away from home is considered a "moral crime" in Afghanistan, like adultery, that women can be prosecuted for. Some women jailed for adultery say they were raped.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the plan reflected the growing strength of conservatives within President Hamid Karzai's government and was an overture to Taliban insurgents waging an escalating war against NATO and Afghan forces.
Some of the 14 shelters in Afghanistan faced closure if taken over by a government lacking the money and resources to run them, the group said.
"The government is full of misogynist warlords and wide open to corruption," HRW Afghanistan researcher Rachel Reid said in a statement on Sunday.
"A government shelter is far more likely to cave in to pressure from families and tribes to hand back the victims, which will put women's lives at risk."