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7.9.2010 Afghanistan: When Women Set Themselves on Fire

By Abigail Hauslohner

Fawzia felt like she had no way out. Married off to her cousin at age 16, she had been beaten routinely by her husband and in-laws in their poor rural home in Paktia province for the first three years of her marriage. She complained bitterly to her parents, but no solution seemed imminent. Marriage had become too much for her to bear. Then, after she saw her brother-in-law strike his wife on the head with a gun, Fawzia finally did what she had threatened to do many times before: she doused herself in cooking fuel and struck a match.

Now Fawzia (whose name has been changed because of her age) lies in a hospital bed with third-degree burns covering 35% of her body and ash coating the insides of her lungs. Her physician, Dr. Ahmed Shah Wazir, believes it's unlikely that she will survive. The terrifying thing is that she is far from the only person in Afghanistan to take such drastic action. The Ministry of Women's Affairs has documented a total of 103 women who set themselves on fire between March 2009 and March 2010. No one knows what the real numbers are, given the difficulty of collecting data in the country. "More than 80% [who try to kill themselves in this way] cannot be saved," says Wazir, who runs the burn unit at Kabul's Istiqlal Hospital, one of only two such specialized wards in Afghanistan.

Wazir believes that most of his would-be patients never make it to the hospital. In some cases, families are too ashamed or fearful of prosecution to report what happened. "There are many such cases where, because of honor, because of the media, [the families] don't want to disclose it," says Selay Ghaffar, director of the Kabul-based NGO Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan (HAWCA). "I'm sure there are many, many cases that are still invisible." "I have seen a number of instances of women setting themselves on fire in my life," says Fawzia's mother, wiping away tears. She insists that there is nothing unusual about her daughter. "Four months ago, someone else from our village lit herself on fire and died."

In recent years, the dramatic suicide method employed by women in this war-torn country has drawn wide attention, amid speculation that the trend might be growing. Some, like Wazir, blame Iranian TV and cinema for romanticizing suicide by fire. (For example, in the 2002 movie Bemani, a girl uses self-immolation to escape a forced marriage.) He points out that many of his patients, including Fawzia, are refugees who have returned from Iran. Other observers argue that the practice has long existed as a method by which Afghan women try to escape their sorrows and that improved monitoring since the fall of the Taliban has only made it more prominent in public awareness. The Afghan government, however, says that in the past five years, the numbers have dropped.

Nevertheless, the act remains both common and poorly understood, with relatively few resources devoted to its prevention. "There are seven safe houses in Afghanistan that protect victims of [domestic] violence," says Ghaffar, whose organization runs one such institution, an advice hotline and several legal-aid centers. But she says most of the country — particularly in the volatile south and east — remains woefully devoid of any services. "There is not a single safe house, and no legal-aid center," says Ghaffar of these regions. "There are many cases that need protection."

The implication, then, for women like Fawzia — who pleaded with her parents to find a solution on multiple occasions — is that even when outside help is sought, there remains a high probability that none will be found. Part of the problem, women's groups say, is resistance by officials to searching Afghan society for the root of such a horrifying phenomenon. Even Fawzia's doctor finds nothing blameworthy in the Afghan way of life. "It is a very good culture. We support the women," says Wazir, dismissing the notion that family abuse and despondency could be the main factor driving patients to his burn center.

Indeed, even when domestic abuse is acknowledged, says Ghaffar, "Afghan society puts the blame on the woman — that she is not a good woman; that she is suffering at home because she is not behaving like a good mother or a good wife. And that's why the husband has the right to beat her." Ghaffar estimates that the majority of Afghan women experience some kind of domestic abuse and rarely report it. "For every one case we have, I'm sure we can multiply it by thousands."

In the bed next to Fawzia is 14-year-old Amina (whose name has also been changed). Her neck and torso look as if they have been turned inside out: the flesh is a raw, wet, oozing pink. She grimaces as she talks. "I was tired of life," she says, her voice flat. "I had to kill myself." Amina was only 11 when she was married. And unlike Fawzia, her tormentor was a woman — a senior wife of her brother-in-law. "Sometimes she would beat me and pull my hair out and prevent me from taking water from the pump," she says. Amina and her sister-in-law were apparently in competition over food and resources: the household was poor, made up of four nuclear families struggling in the same living space. But, like Wazir, Amina's nurse, Mahdiya Akbari, cites not abusive family conditions but a more commonly accepted explanation. "Most of these patients have emotional, psychological and economic problems," she says, standing over the girl's bed.

That mind-set is prevalent, and because of it, alternatives are limited. "To find a solution to their problem, people should first resort to relatives," says Wazir. "Here there is a tribal structure. If relatives don't solve the problem, they can go to the clergy. Or they can solve their problem with the elders of the tribe." If that fails, he adds, civil-society groups, courts and the police force should be utilized before resorting to something as drastic as self-immolation. At worst, "they should escape and flee the area. The solution is not to put oil on the body."

But governance in Afghanistan — particularly when it benefits women — is primarily theory and little practice. "Most of the time, the decisions of the tribal leaders are not beneficial to the women," says Sayeda Mojgan Mostafezi, Deputy Minister of Women's Affairs. This past spring, Mostafezi coordinated women's participation in Afghanistan's national assembly, or jirga, held in Kabul to discuss a national plan for reconciliation. Of the 1,600 delegates, she says, 315 were women — a proud showing of the country's progress.

But in real life, where emancipation isn't encouraged by the government and its Western patrons, progress is far from discernible. Marriage in Afghanistan is still "like a form of sale," Mostafezi admits. Women are often traded to resolve family disputes or strengthen family bonds. And the male-controlled tribal structures — when they enforce any kind of law at all — are unlikely to side with women in domestic-abuse cases. Says Mostafezi: "Ninety percent of their decisions work against women's rights."

And for the women who seek refuge, there is little the Women's Affairs Ministry can do. Nine years into the new government, the ministry has yet to push a protective family law past parliament. Because of her ministry's low budget, she says, all of the existing safe houses are run by NGOs. "The government also may not be ready to pay for this," she adds. Indeed, local officials are often perplexed when a woman actually comes forward to complain about the way she is being treated at home. In Kandahar, when one abused woman approached the police earlier this year, they were so conflicted about what to do that they put her in a detention center. "She stayed there for months because there was no other place to send her," says Ghaffar. When HAWCA learned of the case, the organization brought the woman to Kabul.

Ghaffar says what women need most urgently are not only laws and services to protect them but an awareness that they have a way out — through counseling, divorce, safe houses and other means. "When they think there is no other option, they burn themselves," she says.

Back at the Istiqlal Hospital burn unit, the windows are shut, and the thick, pungent air smells of disinfectant chemicals and burned flesh. Fawzia is barely conscious, and her eyes are swollen shut. "My daughter complained a lot to her father, saying that she had a bad life," says Fawzia's mother. "But no one listened to her. He told her just to be patient." The mother now worries that her husband could send Fawzia back to the in-laws if she survives. The young woman, after all, is their property, according to local custom. "My husband is always telling me not to complain, and he threatens to hit me," says Fawzia's mother, "because my daughter's father-in-law is my husband's brother." Fawzia's in-laws have not come to the hospital and were not available for comment. But Noor pledges to do everything in her power to keep Fawzia from going back. "If her life doesn't improve," she says, "she may try to burn herself again."