Scotland on Sunday, November 25, 2012
Burns unit brides tell story of Afghan abuse
Many were married young, often against their will and to older men who already have wives
Waheeda cannot now explain how she reached the final, terrible decision to set herself alight.
She does remember the months of beatings and her brothers-in-laws’ abuse.
But the moments before she poured oil over her legs outside the room where her in-laws were and ignited her clothes with a match are now clouded by 40 days of pain.
She cannot say whether she intended to kill herself, or just call attention to her suffering.
As she ran shrieking into the room engulfed in flames, her relatives smothered her in blankets.
“I still don’t know exactly why I did this. All I know now is that it was a very bad thing,” the 18-year-old murmurs as she sits on her hospital bed. Beneath her pale blue hospital gown her young body is a quarter covered in burns, many of them deep enough to require skin grafts.
Such desperation may seem incomprehensible, but the doctors listening to Waheeda’s story have heard similar tales all too often. Here in the burns and plastic surgery centre of Herat regional hospital, they receive at least one or two such cases each month.
Self-immolation is not confined to this patch of western Afghanistan, but for reasons few can explain, it seems to generate far more cases than elsewhere.
Such is the region’s notoriety for young women burning themselves that Herat medical authorities are at first reluctant to discuss the issue after being blamed for inspiring copycat attempts.
Dr Habib ur Rahman Habib, a doctor who has spent the past eight months in the centre, says many of his patients follow a pattern. Many were married young, often against their will and to older men who already have wives.
“Most are married below the age of 18 and some of their husbands already have three wives. They have problems with their new families and they don’t know what to do, who to turn to,” he said. “Some decide to burn themselves.”
Waheeda fits that pattern. Only 16 when she was married off, she found herself living with in-laws who mistreated her. Both her mother-in-law and brother-in-laws treated her as a slave and beat her.
They have only been to visit her once.
Fatima is lucky to be alive, say doctors, as the hospital rarely manages to save self-immolators with more than 50 per cent burns. (Photo: Jim Bellamy)
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The number of young women who do the same may be far higher than the one or two a month who freely admit their burns are self-inflicted.
Among the stream of female patients admitted with burns and scalds from cooking accidents are a significant proportion staff suspect are lying about the cause of their injuries.
Soraya, in her early twenties, is one such case. Her burns were inflicted only five days ago and her blistered and pained face is still an angry pink from where it was seared.
When she came in with 25 per cent burns, she told doctors she had been covered in burning petrol as she switched on a generator at her home.
Dr Habib thinks she is lying and too ashamed to admit it.
“We think a lot more of them have burned themselves than admit it. We hear a lot of lies,” he said, inspecting her chart as she looked silently out of the window.
Such a course of action may seem desperate, but women trapped in violent, abusive marriages have few options in Afghanistan.
“The situation of women facing domestic violence or abuse in the home is extremely difficult,” said Heather Barr, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.
A man can divorce his wife simply by telling her that she is divorced, but a woman can only divorce by proving in court that she has cause.
“This requires a lawyer, and funds, and freedom of movement, not to mention knowledge of the law – which in practice means that it is impossible for most women to get a divorce,” Barr said.
Hundreds of women are jailed in Afghanistan for running away from home, which many judges believe must be punished as it could lead to immorality.
They may receive help from their parents, but otherwise many have no escape.
“In this situation it is not surprising that so many choose death instead,” Barr said. “Why self-immolation? I don’t know, but perhaps because it is dramatic and will draw attention to the act and the woman’s pain and what she has suffered.”
As the women recuperate from their agonising burns, they have long hours to dwell on their futures.
Living alone is virtually impossible for Afghan women, so most must ponder reconciliation with either their own families or their in-laws.
Waheeda, who has a 14-month-old son called Irfan, says she has thought of little else. “When I leave hospital, I will go to my mother’s house. Then I will ask them to bring my husband’s family over to discuss the matter. If they can settle it and promise I will not be ill-treated, then I will return. If not, I don’t know. I will have to live in my mother’s house.”
She is not the only one in the ward to view the future with trepidation.
The eight doctors and ten nurses in the centre are worried about how long their centre will keep going as foreign support to Afghanistan declines. The staff, like many Afghans, fear that as the Nato mission in Afghanistan ends, aid will dry up.
Originally funded by Italian money, the 14-bed centre, like Herat hospital itself, is clean and well equipped compared to many Afghan hospitals.
Yet the doctors still struggle with inadequate sterilisation equipment and drugs. Women who arrive with more than 50 per cent burns almost always die, as staff cannot save them.
Dr Sami Sadat, who has worked in the centre for four years, said: “The biggest problem is equipment. We are worried there will not be any donors with us to continue to give money.“We are trying to keep strong for the patients and to keep treating them. It’s not easy to see their suffering.”
Jim Bellamy is a correspondent for the International Network of Street Papers
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