Abused Women Driven to Suicide

Self-immolation is seen as the only way out for some who suffer physical violence and sexual abuse at the hands of their families.

Abused Women Driven to Suicide

Self-immolation is seen as the only way out for some who suffer physical violence and sexual abuse at the hands of their families.

Wednesday, 16 November, 2005

On a chilly day in Kabul early last month, Gulmora, a 22-year-old mother of two, locked herself in the bathroom of her house, doused herself with fuel and set herself on fire.


By the time her husband noticed the smoke and broke open the door, Gulmora had burns over 98 percent of her body. He wrapped her in a blanket to put out the flames and took her to the local hospital. She died six days later.


Her case is hardly unique. Over the past 12 months, nearly 90 women in Afghanistan have reportedly attempted to take their lives this way, according to human-right officials. In most cases, they were the victims of physical or sexual abuse.


Karima Karimi, assistant director of women’s rights development at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said forced marriages are a leading cause of such suicide attempts.


Since March, 2003, most of these attempted suicides have taken place in the western city of Herat. "Figures from the criminology register of the hospital show 56 incidents of burning, of which four were men, and 52 were women,” said Karimi. “Of all these incidents, 32 women died and the rest survived."


A hospital in Kabul reported it had treated 30 similar cases; 3 other cases have been reported in the eastern city of Jalalabad, according to human-rights officials.


Many of these burn victims end up in a special surgical hospital in Kabul’s Kart-e-Say district because it has the best surgery facilities in the country. "Most incidents occur because of violence [in] the families,” said Dr Hasan Kamal, assistant chief of surgery at the hospital in central Kabul.


Before her death, Gulmora, who had been married for seven years, talked to IWPR about what drove her to set herself on fire. Lying in a hospital bed with her skin blacked, her hands and arms were badly swollen. Her face was so swollen that she was unable to open her eyes. From time to time, she let out a low moan. At other times she would begin to ramble but she was also able to speak coherently.


"I would always be beaten by my husband,” she said. “I could no longer put up with him, and had no way out other than suicide, so I set fire to myself."


She said that she had also been beaten by other members of her husband’s family, "My brother-in-law beat me with a cable.” She said that her husband threatened to desert her and their children - a boy 18 months old and a girl 3 months old - and go to Iran.


Gulmora's husband, Najibuallah, acknowledged that he frequently fought with his wife and admitted that his brother slapped her because she was always complaining.


But he insisted that he was not responsible for his wife’s actions.


“It is due to her stupidity that she committed this action," he said.


Benafsha, Gulmora's mother-in-law, said she loved her like a daughter and insisted that the family did not have domestic problems. She said Gulmora was free to go to her parents’ home at any time.


She agreed that often young brides in forced marriages can suffer, but said this was not the case with Gulmora. "There [is] much oppression of brides in some families, but no one [did] anything to cause her to destroy herself and her family."


But Gulmora’s sister, Sheerpera, tells a different story. "She was even beaten with scissors on the head once, and she would always be ruthlessly beaten by her husband’s family members, so she had no choice but to commit this," she said.


Sheerpera also said that, before her death, Gulmora had come to her parents’ house and said she wanted a divorce. But her father, Wali Ahmad, refused to allow it, telling his daughter that no one in their tribe had ever been divorced as that would bring dishonour on the family. He advised her to simply tolerate whatever was going on in her marriage.


Ahmad told IWPR that he had already lost his wife and four of his seven children. While his daughter was still in the hospital, he said he would be relieved if she died. “I want God to give her death because they were committing cruelty to my daughter," he said.


A women who attempts suicide is considered to have brought shame upon the whole family. If she should survive, she would be scorned.


Rona, 27, has been married for ten years and has four children. She said she twice attempted suicide by walking into a wood furnace. During a third attempt, she said she was stopped and attacked by her husband.


“I was beaten by my husband until I fainted and then he threw boiling water over me and he tried to kill me,” she said. "I was admitted to this hospital six months ago and throughout this whole time, my husband has not come to visit me nor has he let my children see me."


Tamana, 15, said sexual abuse drove her to attempt suicide. She said her father would kiss and fondle her while she slept and that when she complained, no one would believe her.


"At last when he wanted to rape me, I burned myself," she said.


Fariba is a member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, RAWA, a group that is trying to deter women from resorting to suicides.


“We think that one of the reasons for self-burning is illiteracy and backwardness,” she said. Her organisation provides literacy training and handicraft centers to educate women and give them skills that will allow them to support themselves.


“RAWA strongly believes that it is only with the weapon of education that the women of Afghanistan can be empowered and triumph in their struggle against fundamentalism, which is the main cause of all miseries to women,” she said. “We educate them [to understand] that suicide and self-burning brings nothing positive to them.”


Because many regions of the country are still under the control of conservative leaders and have a weak legal system, many women have few ways to escape abusive relationships, Fariba said.


“So [since] women actually have no other way to raise their voice against the crimes committed against them, they find the easiest way [is] to commit suicide,” she said.


“If justice is done in only a few cases, no one will then dare to brutalise women and deprive them of their very basic rights.”


Lailuma Sadid is a journalist with IWPR.


Support our journalists