By Jawed Bakhtari
Ghulam Rasul, 71, a short man with stooped shoulders had come to the marketplace in Nili, the main town of Daikundi province in central Afghanistan, to buy sugar, matches and candy. As he sat against the mud wall of a grocery shop under the hot sun, he told an IWPR reporter about three women in his village who had consumed rat poison in the past year. Two survived, and one died.
His village, Khalbarg, is in the Sang-i Takht district 150 kilometres from Nili. It took Ghulam Rasul, an influential figure in his village, about four hours to drive to Nili market in his aging Kamaz vehicle.
Ghulam Rasul said every year, several women in his village of about 500 households try to commit suicide, and often succeed. He said the government is never notified because most of the villagers are illiterate, do not have phones, and their only way of getting to Nili is by donkey or mule, a 24-hour trip.
An investigation report by IWPR suggests that at least 200 women commit suicide annually within the nine districts of Daikundi province. The data gathered by IWPR reporters indicates that the main factors are family violence and forced marriage.
The issue that has not been heavily researched either by the the government or by non-government organisations advocating for women’s rights in Afghanistan.
Ghulam Rasul did not give the name of the woman who died recently, but she was in her mid-twenties and recently married. He said she was the daughter of one Rauf Karbalai, and the wife of a man called Panahi, who had taken a second wife a year previously.
“These two wives were fighting each other every day in the house,” Ghulam Rasul said. “This is why Karbalai’s daughter finally ate rat poison.”
Ghulam Rasul said Panahi had been paying more attention to his second wife, aged 18, and had handed over management of the household money to her. He said he had heard from village women that this became intolerable for the first wife.
One day, a fight erupted between the two wives. According to Ghulam Rasul, “A few hours after the violence, a female neighbour, Zainab, entered the Panahi house to call on Karbalai’s daughter. Panahi’s second wife of Panahi told Zainab that Karbalai’s daughter had gone to her room and had been silent for the last few hours.”
The neighbour knocked on the bedroom door, but got no response. She looked into the room through a window and saw Karbalai’s daughter lying on the floor in an unusual position. Nearby was a glass containing a blackish liquid. Then she saw a white package of rat poison.
Sahar Gul, a 15-year old girl brutally tortured by her in-laws for refusing prostitution. (Photo: RFE/RL)
“The woman screamed, ‘Karbalai’s daughter has taken rat poison!’” Ghulam Rasul said. “Of course, the neighbouring women gathered, screaming and weeping. Meanwhile, a man from the neighbourhood called out, ‘Go and dig the grave and announce at the mosque that Panahi’s wife has passed away’.”
An IWPR reporter spent four months visiting 30 villages around Nili and interviewing more than 100 residents face-to-face, including at least 40 women.
These are mountainous, traditional villages where neither men nor women talk easily about suicide. Some husbands threatened to kill the IWPR reporter if he used their wives’ names in any news story.
The reporter managed to record interviews with 17 women who had attempted suicide in the past 16 months – using either rat poison or insecticide – but had survived. The reporter also talked to relatives of women who had committed suicide, and took photographs of some of their graves.
IWPR’s investigation suggests that since many people do not believe there is rule of law within Daikundi province, people are tempted to commit suicide instead of seeking justice via the legal system.
The Health and Women’s Affairs Department and the local office of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, AIHRC, both say they can count the number of suicide reports they have received on one hand.
The AIHRC’s local officer for advocacy and women’s human rights development, Halima Bashardust, said her office received reports of only four suicide attempts in 2011, in all of which the individuals survived. The four women were upset with their husbands and troubled by family issues, and swallowed rat poison, Bashardust said.
She added that mistreatment following forced marriages was another likely cause of suicide attempts.
Asked why her office did not have more data on the number of females who commit suicide, Bashardust replied that very few women came to her office to file complaints against their husbands. She also admitted that coordination was poor among government agencies in Daikundi.
The IWPR reporter tried four times to contact either the head of the local department for women’s affairs, Khoi Rezai, or her deputy to talk about the issue, but was unsuccessful. A spokesperson for the department, a woman named Hasani, said, “The director is not at her office and we don’t have permission to give interviews.”
Bashardust said the government hospital at Nili was the only credible source for data on suicide attempts. In 2010, the hospital recorded 42 suicides – 25 women and 17 men.
When treating patients, doctors hear from the relatives of victims that many cases of attempted suicide are due to forced marriage, abuse at the hands of husbands, and fighting over household finances, Dr Qasemi, a physician at Nili Hospital, said.
The IWPR reporter spent several weeks walking the corridors of Nili hospital to find patients who had attempted suicide, or relatives.
One morning, he saw a Toyota minibus race to the hospital gate. Two men and three women jumped out of the vehicle carrying a woman wrapped in a blanket and hurried into the hospital.
The reporter tried to follow but could not see what was happening. Thirty minutes later, there were screams from the women inside the hospital, and the reporter realised that the patient had died.
The reporter approached the driver of the minibus, who was cleaning the windshield. “The dead girl was Fatema, an 18 year-old whose parents were living in Iran. She lived with her uncle in the village of Zojok in Shahrestan district,” the driver said.
“As far as I know, the uncle’s wife wanted to engage Fatema to her nephew, but Fatema would not agree to marry the man. Finally, her uncle’s wife made up her mind that Fatema had to be engaged within two days. As a result of that decision, violence erupted between Fatema and her uncle’s wife. In protest, Fatema left home to stay at a neighbour’s house.
“Having stayed the night, in the early morning she quietly took a lot of drugs from her neighbour’s shelf and swallowed them with a few glasses of water. She became unable to speak, and the neighbours took her to hospital.”
Akbar Mujahed, head of the criminal department for the police in Daikundi, said his department had no record of anyone filing a case about a female suicide attempt.
Mujahed did not deny that women attempted suicide, but said most people in Daikundi resolved such matters through community and tribal councils.
When told that Nili Hospital recorded 42 suicides in 2010, Mujahed said: “The police have not received any information in this regard, and this surprises us.”
Haji Daud, 71, is the tribal head of the village of Surma-Sang, near Nili. He usually mediates in disputes among people in the village, with the support of most community members.
The IWPR reporter approached Haji Daud and asked him why people did not believe in the government or the law, and came to him to settle their disputes instead.
In a loud voice, he replied that he was unable to talk to the media. “You broadcast my voice and story on the radio, yet these words that people speak with me are confidential. When people hear me speak in the media, they will never come to me,” he said.
More than a year has passed since the death of Karbala’s daughter. Now Panahi treats his second wife the same as he did with his first, according to neighbours.
Karbala’s daughter is buried on a hill where two winters have all but destroyed the grave. People from the village say none of her relatives has ever come to say prayers for her.
Mohammad Reja is an IWPR-trained reporter in Afghanistan