Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Female Suicide On Rise in Herat

Officials report 50 per cent rise in self-immolation and poisoning over last year.
By Sudabah Afzali

Mahjabin, 23, weeps as she describes the events that led her to attempt suicide by swallowing rat poison. Speaking slowly and with difficulty from her bed in Herat hospital, she said that five years ago, after she returned from living in Iran, her father and brothers prevented her from studying and then forced her into marriage.

“My family sold me to that man, and married me off to him for money,” she sobbed.

Her new husband already had a wife, but as she had not borne him a child, he decided to take another one – a common practice in Afghanistan. 

After a year, when Mahjabin had not become pregnant, the abuse began.

“My mother-in-law would fight with me every day,” she said. “She would ask me sarcastically why I hadn’t had a baby. She would say she was going to find another woman for her son. My husband also treated me with anger.”

Mahjabin decided to end it all because she had nowhere to turn.

My family wouldn’t support me. I thought that if I went to the authorities, no one would listen to me. I was disappointed on all sides. So I decided to end my life of suffering by taking rat poison.”

Mahjabin says she is sorry she was found and taken to hospital in time for her life to be saved.

“If they force me to return to my husband’s house,” she warned, “I will try to kill myself again.”

Mahjabin’s is not an isolated case. Officials in Herat province say cases of suicide amongst women – already higher in Herat than in other provinces – have increased by 50 per cent over the last year.

In most cases, the women try to kill themselves by pouring fuel over their bodies and setting themselves on fire, although more women are now turning to swallowing chemicals like rat poison.

Dr Sayed Naim Alemi, the director of the regional hospital in Herat, told IWPR that 85 cases of attempted suicide through burning and poison had been recorded at his hospital in the past six months. Out of these, 57 women died.

Most of these incidents, he said, involved women recently returned from living in Iran.

“There may the provision needed for women to defend their rights there [in Iran],” he said. “But in Afghanistan, particularly around Herat, women are considered chattels to be sold.”

Mohammad Dawud Monir, an expert on social and legal affairs in Herat, noted that returnees from Iran found themselves in a particularly difficult situation.

“Large numbers of people in Herat were forced to leave the country and go to Iran because of the bad situation over the past 30 years, and comparatively, they had a better life there,” he explained. “To some extent, they were exposed to technology and civilisation. The women saw the prosperity and rights enjoyed by Iranian women. When they returned, they faced unemployment, poverty and traditional societal restrictions.”

Observers say that in Afghanistan’s traditional, male-dominated society, violence against women, combined with the absence of rule of law, mean those who face such pressures have no way out and often turn to suicide.

Hamida Husseini, director of the cultural department of the government directorate for women’s affairs in Herat, says that if nothing is done to address the rising number of suicides in the province, the loss of life will reach unacceptable levels.

Her department, she said, along with other government agencies and a number of women’s groups, plan to boost public awareness of the problem and lobby for punishment for those who commit violence against women.

They intend to send teams from house to house talking to young mothers and girls about their lives and daily problems. That way, said Husseini, her department will gain a more accurate picture of the situation and will thus be better able to support vulnerable families.

“Older women will be hired for this programme,” she said, “because they have some experience and can create good relationships with women and girls, ask about their problems and keep in touch in the long term.”

Soraya Pakzad, head of the charity Neda-i Zan [Women’s Voice], said violence against women and female suicide are not unique to Herat. The difference, she said was that families elsewhere find it easier to conceal such cases and the media are less likely to report on them.

“Research conducted by legal organisations shows that Kandahar was also among the provinces with a high incidence of female suicide in 2008. But because of the social structure in that province, and because the media’s hands were tied, these cases were not publicised very much.”

Pakzad argues that because relatively speaking, Herat society is more open, women there are more aware of their rights. But when these rights are denied them, they feel suicide is the only option available to them.

She said Afghanistan’s laws setting out women rights exist only on paper and are generally not put into practice.

Others believe female suicide is rooted in discriminatory customs, poverty and inequality.

Monir said one contributory factor is the practice of marrying girls off to much older husbands against their will, in exchange for money.

Those who go down the arduous path of divorcing their husbands are looked down on and have a hard time in Afghan society. With many doors closed to them, they too may opt for suicide as the only solution.

“The lack of the rule of law paved the way for such shocking cases to happen,” said Monir, calling for the Afghan government and the international community to coordinate efforts to identify and address the problems facing women.

A local police official denied that the authorities ignored violence against women.

Police spokesman Colonel Abdol Rauf Ahmadi said, “Even in cases where the victim in a case of attempted suicide does not make a complaint, the police conduct extensive investigations and arrest any individuals directly or indirectly involved, and hand them over to the judicial authorities.”

Many of the survivors, like Mahjabin, regret that their suicide attempts failed.

Among them is Shokria, 28, who suffered 80 per cent burns. Doctors say they will not be able to save her life.

Wrapped in bandages with only her eyes visible, and her speech slurred, Shokria said she was married against her will to a husband who beat her and their children every day.

Her father ignored her appeals, and she says she was unable to get help from women’s rights groups, so she decided on suicide.

“I don’t regret setting myself on fire,” she said. “My only concern is that my children will still be with that cruel man.”

Sudabah Afzali is an IWPR-trained reporter in Herat.

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