Self-immolation on the rise

In September 2008 Sarah, 20, set herself ablaze in a desperate bid to end her life after four years of marriage to a drug addict in Sheendand District in western Afghanistan.

Her family extinguished the fire and took her to the hospital.

"I was sad when I opened my eyes in the hospital," the severely burnt woman told IRIN. Sarah's husband is a jobless drug addict who often beat her for alleged "insubordination".

"I wanted to die and never come back to this life," she told IRIN from her bed in the Herat city hospital.

Doctors said up to 40 percent of her body was severely burnt and it would take her months to recover.

Over the past six months, at least 47 self-immolation cases have been recorded by Herat city hospital alone, of whom seven were saved but 40 died.

"Ninety percent of the women who commit self-immolation die at hospital due to deep burns and fatal injuries," said Arif Jalai, a dermatologist at the Herat hospital.

Almost all the women had doused themselves with petrol and set themselves alight, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).

More than six years after the ousting of the Taliban regime in 2001 when all women were denied the right to work and education, many women suffer domestic and social violence, discrimination and lack of access to unbiased justice and other services, women's rights activists say.

"Domestic violence against women not only has serious physical and mental effects on women but also causes other grave problems such as self-immolation, suicide, escape from home, forced prostitution and addiction to narcotics," according to a study by the AIHRC in 2007 [].

At least 184 cases of self-immolation were registered by the AIHRC in 2007 against 106 in 2006.

The phenomenon is feared to have increased further in 2008, women's rights activists said.

"We have been unable to collect data and information about all incidents of self-burning due to a number of reasons, but overall the situation is not promising," said Homa Sultani, a researcher on the rights of women at the AIHRC in Kabul.

The AIHRC in Herat and Kandahar confirmed a marked increase in reported cases of self-immolation.

Sultani's concerns were echoed by Seema Shir Mohammadi, director of the women's affairs department in Herat Province: "Women are increasingly paying back the violence they receive at home and outside by self-immolation and suicide."

However, some people say the increase in the reported incidents could also indicate the improved capacity of rights watchdogs, the media and other civil society actors to report them.

The police and judiciary do not launch any formal investigations to determine the causes and motivations of suicide and self-burning by women, according to the AIHRC.

As a result, men who force and provoke women to self-immolation and other forms of suicide remain immune from all legal and penal repercussions.

"The government must ensure proper investigations into cases of suicide among women and where needed bring those responsible to justice," said Sultani of the AIHRC.

In Afghanistan's patriarchal culture, however, it will be difficult to indict the men who force women to commit suicide, specialists say.

"There is a culture of impunity for those who push women to self-immolation and suicide," Sultani said.

Source: Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a project the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. IRIN is UN humanitarian news and information service, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.

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