Desperate Afghan Women Setting Themselves on Fire

Self-immolation of desperate young women on the rise.

December 11, 2012, 1:42 PM

HERAT, Afghanistan Dec. 13, 2012— -- 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.

Desperate Afghan Women Set Themselves on Fire

"I was in the kitchen cooking meat in a pressure cooker," she said, her lines appearing rehearsing and pre-approved. "Suddenly it exploded."

"I was in pain in the beginning when they brought me here, but now I'm better."

But the medical report tells the real story. Doctors documented each one of her burns, on her arms, thighs, shoulders. They don't match the burn patterns of a simple gas explosion. On one of her medical forms, handwritten in blue ink, a doctor diagnoses the obvious: "She was burned by flame."

When asked if she's married, Taranah knows better than to answer herself. She looks to her mother-in-law, who answers on her behalf.

"She was told to not cook meat, but she did," her mother-in-law says. "And when she put things in the pressure cooker, it exploded and the food inside burned her body. The meat, mixed with the water from the cooker and the flame of the fire, burned most of her body."

Taranna's in-laws rushed her to the hospital. Others aren't so lucky.

In the corner of an adjacent room, a cavernous silence is broken only by the constant beeping of a heart monitor. Wrapped in a layer of thick blankets, teenage Zahra pretends to be asleep, closing her eyes whenever strangers walk past. With her hair in a hospital-mandated scrub hat, her small, round face is all that peeks out into the world.

Her story begins like all the others. A young girl who set herself on fire on her wedding night, a claim her relatives deny. But unlike other self-immolation victims, Zahra's in-laws didn't bring her to the hospital right away. Instead, when they heard about what happened, they took the 16-year old girl from her home to her new home – her conjugal home. Rather than spending her wedding night with a man she loved, she spent it in wretched, painful agony, her cries for help ignored. When the night was over, her in-laws brought her to the hospital the following day.

"She was burned," one of her relatives explains, "but they still took her."

It wasn't supposed to be this way. After the fall of the Taliban, foreign governments flooded Afghanistan with aid and infrastructure, with promises that women's rights would be protected. In 2009, Afghan President Hamid Karzai enacted the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) ordinance. It was hailed as a landmark, for the first time criminalizing long-standing and long-defended cultural practices like forced and child marriages, domestic violence and abuse, and rape. Men who broke the law were supposed to be charged, tried, and convicted in impartial courts of law.

It was a glimmer of hope. Even in an often male-dominated society, women had their rights enshrined in Afghan law.

Today, according to the United Nations, only 35 percent of all criminal charges filed under the EVAW ever make it to a trial. In most cases, women are pressured to drop the case. According to the United Nations, the law simply isn't being applied the way it was meant to.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commision found more than 4,000 cases of violence against women over a seven month period, from March to October this year. It's a sharp increase from the nearly 2,300 cases they recorded over an entire 12-month period the year before. U.N. statistics suggest a lower figure – just 1,538 recorded incidents – but even those figures represent a nearly 300 percent increase from the year before.

Some experts suggest the sharp rise is due to better and more accurate reporting of incidents, and that the overall amount of violence hasn't changed. Others, including the authors of the U.N. report, suggest cases of violence against women are still dramatically under-reported, due to cultural, social, and religious factors that prevent women from coming forward with claims of abuse.

According to the U.N. report, those cases that reach law enforcement and Afghanistan's fledgling court system are just "the tip of the iceberg."

Back in Herat, 52-year old Noorullah, Wahida's father-in-law, is standing outside the hospital. Despite the medical evidence and her own testimony, he rabidly denies any wrong doing.

"This was not a case of self immolation, just an accident," he says.

When pressed about Wahida's accusations, that she suffered years of abuse, he becomes defensive.

"This is not true," he says. "You can ask her parents, there was nothing like this. I'm telling you and you should believe me, there was nothing like this."

Noorullah later concedes that if, as a married couple, Wahida and her husband were having martial issues, they could consider a divorce – often a measure of last resort in Afghan culture. Divorce would bring shame to the family.

Inside, alone with no one to comfort her, bed-ridden Wahida still doesn't know she's pregnant. And she has a new fear: Doctors say she'll make a full recovery.

For Wahida, it's a terrifying prospect. It means she'll have to leave the relative safety of the hospital and move back in with her husband and his abusive family. Returning to her own family, as a married woman, would mean giving up custody of her thirteen month old daughter. And so, with each beep of her heart monitor, her anxiety grows.

"I don't want to go back, at any cost," she says. "I only want to go back to my parents."

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