Disheartening news has it that Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai has signed a law legalizing rape in marriage and prevents women from leaving the house without permission.

The law, which has not been publicly released, is believed to state women can only seek work, education or doctor's appointments with their husband's permission.

Only fathers and grandfathers are granted custody of children under the law, according to the United Nations Development Fund for Women.

Mr Karzai has been accused of electioneering at the expense of women's rights by signing the law to appeal to crucial Shia swing voters in this year's presidential poll.

While the Afghan constitution guarantees equal rights for women, it also allows the Shia community, thought to represent 10 per cent of the population, the right to settle family law cases according to Shia law.

The Shiite Personal Status Law contains provisions on marriage, divorce, inheritance, rights of movement and bankruptcy.

The bill passed both houses of the Afghan parliament, but was so contentious that the United Nations and women's rights campaigners have so far been unable to see a copy of the approved bill.

Shinkai Zahine Karokhail, a female MP, said the law had been rushed through with little debate.

She told the Guardian newspaper: "They wanted to pass it almost like a secret negotiation, "There were lots of things that we wanted to change, but they didn't want to discuss it because Karzai wants to please the Shia before the election."

The Afghan justice ministry confirmed the law had been signed, but said it would not be published until technical difficulties had been overcome.

A spokesman for President Hamid Karzai would not comment.