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."