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Self-Immolation Tragically Frequent Among Afghan Women

Jason Motlagh Friday, June 22, 2007

HERAT, Afghanistan -- Thirteen-year-old Morvary's face had melted away as a candle does, with only the faintest of breaths as proof she was still alive after setting herself ablaze.

Mummified in white gauze and full of morphine to ease the pain of third-degree burns covering her entire body, she died two days later at Herat regional hospital, yet another victim in this conservative Western province where nearly 100 self-immolation cases were recorded last year.

Human rights officials and doctors say the real number is much higher since only those who seek help are registered and even then causes are not always possible to pin down.

Morvary's sister, Maghul, tattooed on her forehead with symbols of the nomadic Kuchi tribe, tried to explain it was and accident. But a burn ward official intervened and told of an uglier reality.

"This is not true," said Nurse Drazalakha. "The patients that come here usually say it was accidental, by a gas explosion or something like this, but when we investigate we find that they almost always have burned themselves."

Family problems stemming from forced marriage and abusive husbands, poverty, low education, shame and ignorance; these are the driving factors in most instances, the nurse said.

Three years ago, a government delegation came from the Afghan capital, Kabul, to look into the trend at the behest of local rights groups and aid agencies.

But Drzalakha noted that over the past two years there is evidence that more women are burning themselves than ever before, underscoring "the power of men against women in Afghanistan."

Mohammad Ibrahim Mohammadi, the hospital's head of nursing, said that on average 7-10 women a month are treated for self-inflicted burns; a separate hospital exclusively for burn victims is near completion.

Because the burns cover most of the body -- 70 percent and above -- doctors are able to conclude that such cases are not accidental.

"If it's an accident, you can almost always escape the fire. It's not really possible to burn all of the body," he said, adding that the week before three women had checked in with 100 percent burns and succumbed within days.

"People with these kinds of high-percentage burns can't be treated in this country, not even in the best (hospitals) abroad," he said.

Mohammadi had just completed a two-hour skin graft procedure on one young patient whose condition had improved. Operations, when doctors are available, are done free of charge, he said, though patients must purchase medical supplies such as gauze and painkillers from a pharmacy across the street.

These costs are high for many of the burn victims and their families, who come from rural villages where the average person subsists on less than $1 a day.

Another burn ward patient, Farzana, 19, was conscious and pleaded for more anesthesia to help soothe burns that covered 85 percent of her body.

Her family planned to take her to Iran for better treatment, though hospital aides confided that severe infections meant she was "already dead."

Farzana's story was familiar: She had come home from school and gone into the kitchen, unaware that a propane stove was already on when she lit a match and the air exploded.

And yet her husband, a truck driver, has remained in Iran since the incident, suggesting that like countless other Afghan women she felt trapped in a marriage beyond her control and saw suicide as the only means of escape.

"They are uneducated women here who don't know their rights. Some have mental issues. They don't think about the results of their actions. In their minds, this is the only solution," said Story Hashemi, acting counselor for the Ministry of Women's Affiars in the Herat region.

Efforts to educate rural women about their rights include TV and radio campaigns, training workshops and letters distributed to respected Islamic officials to denounce the practice of self-immolation at Friday prayers.

However, these efforts have stalled, she said, largely due to deep-seated cultural resistance to the equality of the sexes.

Mullah Abdulgafur, a snow-bearded local cleric, was adamant: "Islam condemns this completely . . . It is a terrible practice that must stop. They should report their problems to government."

But he conceded that people living well outside of urban centers are harder to influence.

According to Medica Mondiale, an international women's rights group, about 85 percent of women who die as a result of their burns perish because they are not taken to the hospital, or not fast enough, out of shame. Social exclusion often awaits survivors.

"The culture here is very fundamentalist. We are not allowed to go into their houses, so our work has not been very effective," Hashemi said. "Unfortunately, this is not limited to Herat."

Dr. Soraya Sobhrang, commissioner of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, says incidences of self-immolation are even higher in the southern provinces of Kandahar, Nimroz and Farah, where poverty and strict tribal codes trump government law. They also occur in Kabul.

The rights commission has worked for five years across the country to empower women, she said, but, without drastic socio-economic improvements, "talking with women and giving out information is not enough."

Other common forms of suicide among Afghan women range from drowning in northern Badakhshan province, to poison overdoses in Kabul, she added.

Forced marriage is a galvanizing issue for Sobhrang since it often occurs in open defiance of national law, which stipulates women must be 16 and men 18 to be eligible.

Women in the provinces are at times married to settle an outstanding debt or resolve a dispute.

In one instance, a 10-year-old Herati girl was sold by her opium-addicted father to a 28-year-old man who beat her regularly; she eventually doused herself with kerosene and lit a match. Alternately, some girls are married off to men as much as five times older.

The commission has also wrangled with the Supreme Court to amend "primitive" divorce laws, with some success. For one, a woman can now initiate divorce if she so chooses but still must pay a severance fee that can be prohibitively expensive.

Sobhrang calls this a "great achievement" and wants to take another step forward by raising the legal marriage age for women to 18, the same as for men.

But in more remote provinces where state authority is nominal at best, enforcement of these laws is easier said than done.

"Our government is not strong," she said. "The international community made a mistake empowering the mujahedeen who are now stronger in the provinces. They make and follow their own laws there."

Jason Motlagh is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist and a frequent WPR contributor.

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