International News Electronic Telegraph
17 May 1998 Issue 1087

Taliban's law drives women to suicide

By Julian West in Kabul

AID workers in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan have reported a dramatic increase in the number of women committing suicide because they can no longer bear the country's all-pervasive Islamic code.

In the worst cases, women have taken their own lives by swallowing caustic soda - an agonising and lingering death. In addition, the number of women admitted to mental hospitals with severe depression has more than doubled since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, 20 months ago and forbade women to work.

There has also been a rise in domestic violence as frustration builds up in families, already in dire economic straits. And there are reports of prostitution among street children as young as eight or nine.

The suicides are spoken of only in whispers. Because of social and religious taboos, families usually try to record them as an accidental death. Even international aid agencies have been asked not to speak out. One foreign agency spokesman called suicide among women "a very sensitive subject".

But a doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that women had been committing suicide "in greatly increased numbers" and that the most common method was caustic soda.

"Caustic soda burns away the throat," he said. "It takes three days to die. Regrettably, the only surgeon capable of performing the kind of intervention needed is in a hospital that is now closed to women."

He also said that many young women had visited him claiming to have a heart condition, and asking for potentially lethal digoxin tablets. The increase in female suicide has been highlighted in a recent United Nations report on Afghanistan.

At Kabul's mental health hospital, doctors treat increasing numbers of women for depression and neurosis. Some have more severe mental illness such as schizophrenia, psychosis and epilepsy. They say they hear of many cases of suicide.

"Yes, women are killing themselves and I've heard they take caustic soda. It's increasing every day," one psychiatrist said. "They have no bread, no food, nothing. Not long ago a woman neighbour of one of my patients jumped from a fifth floor window. Why? Because she had nothing to eat."

Kabul's mental hospital, the only one in the country, is grim. Housed in a filthy, makeshift building - the original unit in the city's main Karte Se hospital was bombed - rusting iron tables and chairs are piled up on every landing. In the women's ward, two greying net curtains barely keep the sun out of a sparse, concrete room. The women, mostly with acute depression, are the worst cases.

With only 25 beds in the temporary hospital and a chronic lack of basic medicines such as anti-depressants, the hospital's 12 dedicated psychiatrists - who earn just 2 a month and have not been paid for three months - encourage outpatients. In the months since the Taliban imposed its harsh regime, their female patients have risen from about 15 a day to 35.

Most are former civil servants who lost their jobs. Almost half Kabul's 80,000 former civil servants were women, or female university students unable to attend classes. Many are so poor, the doctors say "they cannot even afford to buy one tablet of medicine".

Almost all attend the hospital secretly because of the stigma attached to mental illness. With hardly any medicine to treat them, the doctors do their best with psychotherapy and group therapy. This gives women, isolated in the prisons of their own homes, the chance to meet other women and talk.

"What kills women is sitting at home without a job," said Simeen, a 37-year-old widow at a new clandestine women's co-operative in a suburb of Kabul. The group offers carpet weaving, needlework and educational classes. "I was so angry when the Taliban closed our department. Coming here and being with other women has changed everything for me," she said.

As spring melts the snow on top of the mountains surrounding Kabul, there are signs that the iron regime may be softening. Taliban troops are less in evidence, and women now walk about the city in brightly coloured burqas, veils, which, away from the Taliban's feared religious police, are sometimes raised to show their faces.

But many residents claim that this is only because people have been terrified into submission. Beneath the surface, they say, social ills are festering. Street children, sent to beg to support their families, often headed by widows, have swelled from 28,000, before the Taliban, to an estimated 50,000. Aid workers familiar with these children say some are being forced into prostitution to earn extra cash.

"I know some of these kids very well and they tell me things," said one aid worker. "Children as young as eight or nine are selling themselves to get money to eat."

Domestic violence is also growing as women, frustrated by inactivity, nag their economically hard-pressed husbands. "I talk to the men in my group," said a foreign worker. "Almost all of them said they were ashamed to admit they often hit their wives now."

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