Afghanistan: When Women Set Themselves on Fire

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Majid Saeedi / Getty Images

Vasiyeh, 16, shows her scars from burns she inflicted on herself two years ago, in Herat, Afghanistan, on April 6, 2010

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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."

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