KABUL, Afghanistan — Blood dripped down the 16-year-old girl’s face after another beating by her drug addict husband. Worn down by life’s pain, she ran to the kitchen, doused herself with gas from a lamp and struck a match.
Desperate to escape domestic violence, forced marriage and hardship, scores of women across Afghanistan each year are committing suicide by fire. While some gains have been made since the fall of the Taliban five years ago, life remains bleak for many Afghan women in the conservative and violence-plagued country, and suicide is a common escape.
Young Gulsum survived to tell her story. Her pretty face and delicate feet were untouched by the flames, but beneath her red turtleneck sweater, floral skirt and white shawl, her skin is puffy and scarred.
More than a month after her attempt, her gnarled hands still bleed.
“It was my decision to die. I didn’t want to be like this, with my hands and body like this,” she said, sitting on a hospital bed in Kabul and hiding her deformed hands beneath her shawl.
An upward trend
Reliable statistics on self-immolation nationwide are difficult to gauge. In Herat province, where the practice has been most reported and publicized, there were 93 cases last year and 54 so far this year. More than 70 percent of these women die.
“It’s all over the country. ... The trend is upward,” said Ancil Adrian-Paul of Medica Mondiale, a nonprofit that supports women and girls in crisis zones.
The group has seen girls as young as 9 and women as old as 40 set themselves on fire. But many incidents remain hidden, Adrian-Paul said.
“A lot of self-immolation and suicide cases are not reported to police for religious reasons, for reasons of honor, shame, stigma. There is this collusion of silence,” Adrian-Paul said on the sidelines of a conference this week in Kabul on self-immolation.
Five years after the fall of the repressive Taliban regime, domestic violence affects “an overwhelming majority” of Afghan women and girls, according to a recent report from Womankind, an international women’s rights groups.
An estimated 60 to 80 percent of Afghan marriages are forced, the report said. More than half of Afghan women are married before they turn 16 and many young girls are married to men who are several decades older, the report said. The exchange of women and girls to resolve a crime, debt or household dispute is also common.
Under the hard-line Taliban regime, women were unable to vote, receive education or be employed. In recent years, women have gained the right to cast ballots and female candidates have run for parliament, but women are often still regarded as second-class citizens.
‘I can’t say no’
For Gulsum, who goes by one name, the marriage proposal came with a simple cultural gesture her father could not refuse: The groom’s sister-in-law lay her newborn son at the father’s feet—an act signifying purity and innocence—and asked for the girl’s hand.
“My father said, ‘The baby is like a holy book, so I can’t say no,’” the teenager recalled of her abrupt betrothal last year to a white-haired, 40-year-old man. “In the tradition of our country, when our fathers give us away to be married, we have no choice but to accept.”
She and her husband lived for six months at her parents’ home in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif. The newlyweds then moved in with his family in neighboring Iran, which is home to many Afghan refugees.
Once out of her parents’ care, her husband turned to heroin and alcohol, and the beatings began, Gulsum said. The beatings became worse when she confronted her husband about his addictions. The last time he hit her was earlier this fall when she set herself on fire.
Her husband and his family did not help the burning girl. Their neighbor wrapped her in a blanket to put out the fire and took her to the hospital.
‘Let me get better first’
Herat public health director Raoufa Niazi has seen about 150 self-immolation cases over the past two years and pleads with women who survive that fire is not the way to escape their problems.
“I tell them to go to complain to the government, but the government doesn’t help them,” Niazi said. “The government doesn’t punish the people who hurt these women. Instead, they just say, ‘Why has she done this to herself?”’
Gulsum has since been transferred to a hospital in Kabul, where she has undergone surgery to release the contracted muscles of her neck, and must undergo three or four more procedures to repair other muscles.
She is happier lately and wants to wear pretty clothes again, but has no plans for her future yet. “Let me get better first. When I’m better, then I’ll decide what to do,” she said. “For now, who would want to marry me?”
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