Desperate Afghan Women Setting Themselves on Fire

PHOTO: 21-year old Wahida is recovering from self inflicted burns from trying to escape her abused life with her family and husband, Herat, Afghanistan.

Laying in a hospital bed, 21-year old Wahida longs for the one thing she knows she'll never have: Her old life back.

Quiet and soft spoken, she doesn't move much when she speaks. The bandages still make her skin hurt.

"My husband was beating me, a lot" she confides.

It's obvious that Wahida, who like many Afghan women uses only her first name, is uncomfortable. She constantly shifts her eyes, forlorn and dreary, scanning the room as she speaks. Her fear? Someone could be listening in as she unravels her tragic tale.

"When I remember those events it makes me feel very sad."

"My brother-in-law, mother-in-law, and my father, they were all beating me. They wouldn't let me go outside."

Outwardly, the young girl once so full of life in the western Afghan city of Herat, looks just like the other patients in this hospital wing: Young, afraid, and wrapped in white bandages nearly from head to toe. But her medical report, like the others, carries a dark secret.

Her burns are obvious, though Afghan modesty demands she mostly covers them up. What's visible – her hands, her face, and parts of her forearms – reveal a thin layer of flaky, white skin, much of it still peeling. Some of what was lost will never grow back, a permanent reminder she'll forever bear of that autumn day.

"From day one, I wasn't happy," she continues. "I didn't want to be married to him, but my parents forced me. The place where I got married is far from the city, and I didn't want to go there."

But she did.

Cultural norms dictated Wahida be a "good wife" and do as her father instructed. Before long, she'd given birth to a baby girl, a mark of shame, according to some Afghans, that her first born wasn't a boy. After the birth, the beatings got worse. Eventually, they became so regular, so severe, that Wahida did the unthinkable.

She set herself on fire.

When she was brought to the hospital, her in-laws insisted it was an "accident." Their story: Wahida, like a good Afghan wife, was cooking in the kitchen when suddenly a gas cooking canister exploded. Admitting the young woman had set herself on fire would bring shame to the family's honor, and had to be covered up at all cost.

But the doctors knew right away what had really happened. And when they treated her wounds, they made another discovery, this one even more tragic. It's something Wahida still does not know.

She was three months pregnant.

They worked all night to save the baby, but still haven't told Wahida she's pregnant. They worry she'll try to take her life – and the baby's.

Afghan human rights groups have noticed a sharp rise in the number of self-immolations across the country by women who are so desperate, so hopeless, they think the only escape is to burn themselves beyond recognition. Some are hoping to die, others, to send a message: Having been treated as little more than a commodity their entire lives, it's a final, desperate act to ruin that commodity's value, believing that if they're considered worthless, the beatings will stop.

The burn unit in the Herat hospital is full of similar stories.

Taranna, 16, set herself on fire just before her wedding night, terrified of marrying a man she knew nothing about. When asked to speak about what happened, she looks to her mother-in-law, hovering by her bedside.

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