This is so sad and so horrible, I have no words.


Desperate Afghan women seek fiery end

November 9, 2010
Hanife, 15, has her bandages changed after skin graft surgery at the Herat burns hospital.

Hanife, 15, has her bandages changed after skin graft surgery at the Herat burns hospital. Photo: Lynsey Addario/New York Times

Oppression and violence is driving many women to self-immolation. Alissa Rubin reports from Herat.

EVEN the poorest families in Afghanistan have matches and cooking fuel. The combination usually sustains life. But it can also be the makings of a horrifying escape: from poverty, from forced marriages, from abuse and from despondency.

The night before she burned herself, Gul Zada took her children to her sister's for a family party. All seemed well. Later it emerged that she had not brought a present, and a relative had chided her for it, said her son Juma Gul.

This small thing apparently broke her. Zada, who was 45, the mother of six children and earned pitiably little cleaning houses, ended up with burns on nearly 60 per cent of her body at the Herat burns hospital.

The hospital is the only medical centre in Afghanistan that specifically treats victims of burning, a common form of suicide in this region. Through early October, 75 women arrived with burns - most self-inflicted, others only made to look that way. That is up nearly 30 per cent from last year.

It is shameful here to admit to troubles at home, and mental illness often goes undiagnosed or untreated. The choices for Afghan women are extraordinarily restricted. Their family is their fate: there is little chance for education, little choice about whom a woman marries, no choice at all about her role in her own house.

Returned runaways are often shot or stabbed in honour killings because the families fear they have spent time unchaperoned with a man. Women and girls are still stoned to death. ''Violence in the lives of Afghanistan's women comes from everywhere: from her father or brother, from her husband, from her father-in-law, from her mother-in-law and sister-in-law,'' said Shafiqa Eanin, a plastic surgeon at the burns hospital.

The most sinister burn cases are actually homicides masquerading as suicides, said doctors, nurses and human rights workers.

''We have two women here right now who were burnt by their mothers-in-law and husbands,'' said Arif Jalali, the hospital's senior surgeon.

Engaged at eight and married at 12, Farzana resorted to setting herself on fire when her father-in-law belittled her, saying she was not brave enough to do so. She was 17 and had endured years of beatings and abuse from her husband and his family.

Defiant and depressed, she went into the yard. She handed her husband their nine-month-old daughter so the baby would not see her mother burning. Then she poured cooking fuel on herself.

For a very few of the women who survive burnings, the experience helps them change their lives. Some work with lawyers and request a divorce; most do not.

Many women mistakenly think death will be instant. Halima, 20, a patient in the hospital in August, said she considered jumping from a roof but worried she would only break her leg. If she set herself on fire, she said, ''it would all be over''.

In the hospital, Gul Zada rallied at first, and her son Juma Gul was encouraged, unaware of how difficult it is to survive such extensive burns.

The greatest risk is sepsis, a deadly infection that generally starts in the second week after a burn and is hard to stop. Even badly burnt and infected patients can speak almost up to the hour of their death, often giving families false hope.

''She was getting better,'' her son insisted.

But the infection had, in fact, set in and the family did not have the money for powerful antibiotics that could give her whatever small chance there was to survive.

Two weeks after his mother set herself on fire, Juma Gul stood by her bed as she stopped breathing.


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