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By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday that there was a deeply disturbing "pervasive climate of impunity" in Afghanistan for the abusers of women and girls and he called on Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government to take action.
Despite a fall in civilian casualties in Afghanistan for the first time in several years, the United Nations said last month more than 300 women and girls were killed and more than 560 injured in 2012, a 20 percent increase from 2011.
Activists and some lawmakers have blamed the rise in violence against women on what they say is the Karzai administration's waning interest in women's rights, a claim Karzai denies.
"I remain deeply disturbed that despite some improvements in prosecuting cases of violence, there is still a pervasive climate of impunity in Afghanistan for abuses of women and girls," Ban told a U.N. Security Council debate on Afghanistan.
"They have an inviolable right to live free of fear or attacks. And women and girls are key to a better future for Afghanistan. Protecting them is central to peace, prosperity and stability for all people in the country," he said.
Ban called for the Afghan government to strictly implement a 2009 law on the elimination of violence against women, which made child marriage, forced marriage, rape and other violent acts criminal offenses.
The U.N. political mission in Afghanistan, led by special envoy Jan Kubis, said in December that Afghanistan still had a long way to go in implementing the law. Kubis said on Monday that violence linked to culture was the main reason for the rise in deaths and injuries of women girl last year.
Zahir Tanin, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council that Kabul was committed to upholding international commitments on human rights, including women's rights.
Afghanistan is a conservative Muslim country, where under Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001 women were forced to cover up and were banned from voting, most work and leaving their homes unless accompanied by a husband or male relative.
U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in late 2001 for refusing to hand over al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
As foreign forces prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014, the United Nations and rights groups are concerned human rights in Afghanistan, particularly those of women, will further deteriorate.
Afghan women have won back basic rights in education, voting and employment since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001, but fears are mounting that such freedoms could be traded away as Kabul seeks peace talks with the group.
"As Afghanistan builds a better future, the contributions, intrinsic worth and fundamental dignity of Afghan women must continue to be embraced," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice told the council.
The 15-member Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution on Tuesday to extend the U.N. political mission in Afghanistan for another year. The resolution also expressed concerns about civilian casualties and the rights of women and girls.
The resolution "recognizes that despite progress achieved on gender equality, enhanced efforts, including on measurable and action-oriented objectives, are necessary to secure the rights of women and girls and to ensure all women and girls in Afghanistan are protected from violence and abuse, enjoy equal protection under the law and equal access to justice."
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