In the refined, cultured and historic Afghan city of Herat, 67 young women have been admitted to the main hospital this year after setting themselves on fire.
Halima is the most recent. She arrived earlier this month with third-degree burns to 30% of her body after dousing herself in diesel oil and setting it alight during a family argument.
Her torso and one of her arms — the one that did not pour the oil — are swaddled in thick bandages, the charred and blackened fingers on her right hand poking through. Every now and then she winces in pain.
It had been a furious row, she said, with her husband’s first wife, whom she accused of supplying him with opium.
“I was crazy angry at that time. I wanted to kill myself and I thought that it would be a quick death,” said the 20-year-old who has been a second wife for five years. “But it wasn’t.”
As shocking and gruesome as the practice is, self-immolation is not unusual among young women in Afghanistan, where women are often seen and treated as the property of men.
Traditions stronger than laws
Some experts, such as Dibi Hareer of the small German-based charity Medicale Mondiale, say the phenomenon is growing, the reasons embedded in “Afghan customs and traditions that are stronger than laws”.
At Herat General Hospital’s burns unit, Dr Aref Jalali has been keeping statistics on self-immolation since about 2002, and said he admits eight to 10 cases of self-immolation a month. In June, he said, there were 20.
“Of the 67 cases so far this year, 33 died, 15 discharged themselves from the hospital and never came back, and the others are fine,” he said while standing at Halima’s bedside.
“It might be that there are five to 10 cases a month of young women setting themselves on fire that we never see, they are a long way from the city and so they cannot get here in time to get life-saving treatment.
“Or it could be that they are not helped by their families, they are just left to die,” he said, relating the case of one young woman who was found locked in a barn weeks after attempting self-immolation.
“She was found 15 days after setting herself alight. She was found by accident by a human rights group. Her brother-in-law and father-in-law had raped her, so she wanted to kill herself,” Jalalai said.
Many of the women who do make it to hospital discharge themselves after a few days, he said, inviting infection that probably kills them later.
Since 2007, Jalali has seen between 50 and 95 cases of self-immolation a year, but numbers are up 40% this year, he said, adding: “I believe the real number is much higher than the cases we see but there is no strategy for dealing with this phenomenon.”
Jalali has set up a research foundation called Nejat, meaning rescue in Dari, which he hopes will gather enough information to be able to help put a stop to what he calls a “horrifying trend”.
Afghanistan’s lack of social development is blamed for the way women are treated, with much of the horror attributed to tradition and religion.
The Muslim country is pious and conservative and the spread of the Taliban’s hardline Islamist insurgency has seen more women retreat behind all-enveloping burqas amid objections to plans by President Hamid Karzai to open peace talks.
There has been little improvement in the lot of women in rural areas despite the introduction of constitutional rights after the Taliban’s brutal regime was overthrown in late 2001.
Afghanistan remains a society mired in misogyny, with most women confined to their homes, unsocialised and uneducated, with no control over their lives.
“Forced marriages lead to problems, young women married to old men, sold, swapped for sheep or even opium. Sometimes girls are engaged as babies to baby boys — this is common outside the cities and it leads to some of the problems of the women who come in here,” Jalali said.
“Women are seen as chattels, they are treated as animals, when they are at home they face constant discrimination and when they are forced into underage marriages nothing changes.
“They feel more pressure from their abusive husbands and equally from women, mainly mothers-in-law. They sometimes go to mullahs and community councils to ask for help, but even there they face humiliation and abuse,” he said.
“They finally set themselves on fire in an act of utter desperation.”
The vast majority of the women he sees are aged between 15 and 25 years old, he said, up to 85% of them impoverished, illiterate and “unable to deal with problems within their families”.
Their desperate cry for help rarely results in any improvement in their lives and if they survive can lead to even more problems, Jalali said.
“They have terrible scarring, the situation at home rarely changes, police investigate and they don’t tell the truth, saying their burns are from an accident.”
Sometimes, the women will appeal to the village elders, whose councils are called “shuras”, for mediation, but tradition rules and little changes.
“The shuras often tell them to go back to their homes, which doesn’t deal with, let alone overcome any of the problems that led to this situation in the first place,” Jalali said.
In an effort at least to draw attention to the issue, Afghanistan’s public health ministry has declared October 10 Self-Immolation Day.
Ghulam Sakhi Kargar Noor Ogholi, ministry spokesman, said the idea was to involve schools and mosques in a public information campaign to stop the practice that “takes the lives of hundreds of women”.
For Jalali, education is the key to change.
“No forced marriages,” he said emphatically.
“We must start in the schools, we must use the media and the mullahs at the mosques to get the message across. We need to set up centres that focus on young women, helping them learn how to deal with and solve their problems.
“I come across many women who want to burn themselves, which means they have already reached the very extreme of what they can tolerate,” he said.
“Here, we give them counselling on how to deal with their problems. So tolerance and awareness are the biggest factor in improving their lives when they leave here, because very little else is going to change.” – Reuters