Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai has ordered changes to proposed legislation that has been denounced by rights groups as a major setback for women's rights.
The chambers of the Afghan parliament have already passed the new "criminal procedure law," which would prohibit prosecutors from questioning any relative of an alleged abuser.
Rights groups and Western officials have criticized the bill, saying it offers protection from prosecution to abusers of females, and would end up denying justice to victims of domestic violence and forced marriage.
Presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi said on February 17 that the draft Penal Code would not come into force unless the Justice Ministry made certain amendments.
Faizi told The Associated Press that planned changes to the law "will not bar any relative or any family member from testifying against each other or another member of family."
The spokesman added that Karzai was "well aware" that rights advocates had criticized the legislation as marking a backward step for women's rights in Afghanistan.
New York-based Human Rights Watch group said it was "cautiously optimistic" after news emerged that the legislation would be changed. But the group said it was still waiting to see the exact amendments to the legal language that would be introduced.
The United Nations has repeatedly raised concerns that women's rights in Afghanistan could already be deteriorating as Western combat forces prepare to withdraw from the country by the end of this year and international focus on Afghanistan's development recedes.
Conservatives Push Back
Women in Afghanistan remain gravely vulnerable in a deeply patriarchal country where violence against women has often been condoned and females have frequently been treated as the property of their families or men.
Women's rights in Afghanistan declined sharply during the rule of the Taliban, from 1996 to 2001. Girls were barred from attending school, and women were forced to wear burqas and were prohibited from taking part in public life. Taliban authorities also used stoning to punish women for adultery.
The situation has improved, but only haltingly, since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban in late 2001.
In 2009, a broad "Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women" was passed by presidential decree.
The measure established new criminal penalties for rape, child marriage, forced marriage, domestic violence, sale of women and girls, and the practice of families giving girls to resolve disputes with another family.
But analysts say the decree's implementation has been weak in the face of moves by religious conservatives to roll back its provisions.
The question of women's rights has also gained intensity as a political issue ahead of this April's presidential election and next year's planned parliamentary elections.
In a report earlier this month, Human Rights Watch noted that setbacks for women's rights in Afghanistan in 2013 included attacks on and killings of high-female government and police officials, and a reduction in the number of seats set aside for women on the country's 34 provincial councils.
It also noted that in November 2013, President Karzai ruled out his government reintroducing stoning as a punishment for adultery, after a proposal suggesting it be reinstated was leaked to the media.
With reporting by AP, dpa, and AFP