CTV.ca News, July 9, 2007

Many Afghan women choosing suicide by fire

In the western province of Herat, there were 100 cases of self-immolation last year.

A growing number of Afghan women are attempting to escape a life of abuse by setting themselves on fire, a study by a human rights group has found.

Bora Gul Heha
Bora Gull Heha lies in a hospital bed in Kandahar, Afghanistan on July 8, 2007. (CP PHOTO/Stephanie Levitz)

One woman who survived that act is Bora Gull Heha. She is only 16.

Tribal elders of Nowzad, her home village in Helmand province, arranged her marriage when she was only 14. Her husband Abdul is nine years older than her.

"My husband beat me on our wedding night," she said, her disfigured body covered by thin gauze.

Her mother-in-law subjected her to constant tirades.

When the abuse became intolerable, Heha took what she though was her only way out. She grabbed an oil lamp and set herself ablaze.

Burnt Afghan woman ( http://www.rawa.org/burning_p.htm )
Photographer Lana Slezic documented the life of Afghan women: forced marriage, abuse, maltreatment and suicide.

"My husband was there, he saw me light the fire. He didn't try to stop me," she said.

Instead of dying, the teenager is now suffering in what seems like hopeless circumstances. She has burns to 90 per cent of her body.

Months from now, if she's still alive, she plans to return to her husband. "I don't want to cause my family any shame," Heha said.

Abdul has yet to visit her in hospital.

Wolus Bibi, the girl's mother, told The Canadian Press that Heha's husband's family was chastised by the village elders for allowing the abuse and the self-immolation.

The group Medica Mondiale has found that stories like that are becoming increasingly common.

Kandahar province recorded 74 such cases in 2005. In the first six months of 2006, there were 77 cases.

RAWA Video Clip of self-immolations in Afghanistan

In the western province of Herat, there were 100 cases of self-immolation last year.

"My feelings about all Afghan women are painful," says Ruma Tareen, director of women's affairs in Kandahar. "They are so backward in such a sophisticated world."

She would like to see a women's shelter in Kandahar. Currently she takes women fleeing abuse into her own home because there is nowhere else to go.

Tareen made a proposal to the Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team, but it was reluctant to act because there was no operating plan.

She sent a request to the national government in Kabul. The Women's Affairs Ministry proposed a national network, but nothing ever happened.

As for Heha, she has one wish: "What I don't want is for other girls to suffer like me."

With a report from CTV's Paul Workman and files from The Canadian Press

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