BBC News, December 12, 2006

Pain of Afghan suicide women

Some women do manage to end their lives, but many survive with huge burns to their faces and bodies, like Gulsoom.

By Payenda Sargand

Gulsoom is 17-years-old and married. Last year she tried to commit suicide - she failed. She set fire to herself but, against the odds, survived with appalling injuries.

Gulsoom was unconscious for a week (BBC Photo)

Her plight reflects that of a growing number of young Afghan women, campaigners say.

Driven to desperation by forced marriages and abusive husbands, more and more are seeking release through self-immolation.

Gulsoom was engaged at the age of 12. Three years later her family married her to a man aged 40 who she says was addicted to drugs.

She was then taken to Iran. Her husband beat her regularly, Gulsoom says, particularly when he had no money for heroin.

"Once after I was badly beaten by my husband, I was in bed when I heard a voice murmuring and telling me to go and set fire to myself," she says.

"I went and poured petrol on my whole body. The flames on my body lasted for minutes. After eight days I found myself conscious in bed.

"I cared about my father's dignity - that's why I tolerated everything."

'No one will marry me'

Gulsoom has had many operations since she divorced her husband and faces many more.

She's not alone - there are hundreds of other women who have tried and failed to kill themselves.

Some women do manage to end their lives, but many survive with huge burns to their faces and bodies, like Gulsoom.

In many cases they have no choice but to return to the husband and the abuse from which they sought escape.

Gulsoom looks hopelessly at her scarred hands saying her only wish now is to be made better, although she says no one will marry her again with her burnt skin.

"When I wore nice clothes my husband showed jealousness," she recalls.

Forced marriages, a culture of family violence and many other social problems are given as causes for the suicides.

Afghan women have long had to suffer violence or mysterious deaths. Even now girls are still handed over in disputes or as compensation in murder cases.

Publicising abuse

The BBC's Salmi Suhaili, who works on women-related issues, says women taking their lives is not a new phenomenon in what is traditionally a very conservative society.

Roshan Qasem, 11, will joing the household of Said Mohammed, 55, his first wife; their three sons, and their daughter, who is the same age as Roshan.

Brother of the victim cries
Ghulan Haider, 11, is to be married to Faiz Mohammed, 40.
Photos: New York Times Magazine

But the rise of a civil society and a free media is helping to publicise their acts, he says.

Figures given by Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission show that more women burned themselves to death this year in the southern province of Kandahar than anywhere else in the country.

Last year, Herat in the west - where most girls marry at around 15 - was top.

Deputy minister of women's affairs Maliha Sahak says that 197 incidents of self-immolation have been recorded since March 2006, 35 of them in Kandahar province alone. A total of 69 women lost their lives.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan says that Kandahar's only hospital for women, which has 40 beds, received 29 cases of suicide in the space of two months. Twenty of those women had set themselves alight.

Independent Human Rights Commission head Sima Samar regrets that, five years after the Taliban were ousted, Afghan women are still suffering violence in its various forms.

She says suicide is the final decision for women who don't have any other way to solve their problems or escape abuse.

Changing mindsets

The commission has been working with the Medica Mondiale agency to try to overcome cultural obstacles and give women more of a voice.

Campaigners say violence against women must not remain hidden or it will not stop.

Deputy women's minister Maliha Sahak points to last year's protocol involving many Afghan ministries, the Supreme Court and the human rights commission.

It was passed with President Hamid Karzai's approval and banned the marriage of a woman if she is under 18 years old.

She says another law is in the pipeline which will require agreement from both man and woman for their wedding to be legal.

The women's ministry is to mount an awareness campaign targeting men in an attempt to reduce the violence.

After decades of war, Afghanistan's civil society is still in its infancy.

Those trying to end violence against women face many years of struggle to change fundamental elements of tradition and culture, as well as so-called Afghan dignity.

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