New Internationalist

Burned alive

March 2006

Why young Afghan women are driven to suicide

Lana Slezic / Panos /
When she was 19 years old, Zahra’s husband used to beat her and prevented her from seeing her family; so she doused herself in cooking oil and set herself on fire. Having survived, extensive scarring on her neck makes it difficult for her to turn her head. Lana Slezic / Panos /

Five months after being married at the age of 12, Lila poured petrol over herself and set herself ablaze. Later she whispers from her bed in the overcrowded Howzawi hospital in the western city of Herat that she had wanted to kill herself because her 17-year-old husband had constantly beat her. ‘I ran to my mother’s place but my brother forced me to go back to my husband’s home,’ she says. Her 45-year-old mother now vows: ‘I will never again allow any of my daughters to be married under age.’

According to the new constitution, the legal age for marriage is 16 for women and 18 for men. But the law is frequently ignored. There are reports that 57 per cent of marriages in Afghanistan involve girls under 16.

Lila’s marriage was contracted when she was only six as part of an exchange arrangement that allowed her older brother to marry the woman of his choice. In order for the bride price demanded by the bride’s father to be waived, Lila had to marry the bride’s younger brother.

Outside the ward in a bed in the second-floor corridor, 17-year-old Fatima moans quietly, in agony from her burns. A year earlier, she too had been the ‘bride price’ in a swap for the girl her brother wanted to marry. She, too, was constantly being beaten by her husband, who was in love with someone else. ‘I burned myself so that I could relax for ever,’ she says.

Herat has one of the highest incidences of self-immolation in Afghanistan. Dr Mohammad Hamyon Azizi, who heads the burns unit in Herat’s Howzawi hospital, says that since 2002 around 400 people in the province – most of them young women – have attempted suicide by setting themselves on fire. Some 60 per cent died.

While there are no precise figures on how many girls kill themselves this way, the problem is nationwide. In Kabul’s Istiqlal hospital – the main burns treatment centre – director Sayed Hassan Kamel says 40 per cent of the hospital is dedicated to burns victims. In August 2005 they received 558 such casualties, of which five per cent – 28 patients – were women who had attempted suicide by setting themselves on fire. Judge Ghulam Nabi Hakak of the Human Rights Commission for western Afghanistan, says they have tried to counter the increase in self-immolation cases:

‘We set up some workshops for men and women in towns and districts and promoted women’s rights from the point of view of Islam, with the help of some mullahs in the mosques. We also published a book called Why self-immolation?

Shir Mohammadi says that her women’s affairs office has also tried to use the media and has asked preachers to speak out against forcing teenagers into marriage, but more needs to be done.

Mohammad Jawad Sharifzada and Abdul Baseer Saeed,
Institute for War and Peace Reporting. (

This column was published in the March 2006 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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