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Young Afghan women choose suicide by fire to forced marriage

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New burn unit in Herat seeing far too many teens

Kelly Cryderman, Calgary Herald; CanWest News Service

November 27, 2007

HERAT, Afghanistan – The building is only six weeks old, but already the burn unit in Herat is firmly ensconced with the dizzying smell of antiseptic and charred human flesh.

A customs holdup is keeping a French medical shipment from reaching Herat, so the unit has been short of morphine and codeine. A gruesome scream is heard from a side room as nurses change a woman’s bandages. Other patients occasionally cry out “Allah” as they stare at the ceiling.

Beside a sunny window in the women’s section lies Afsana, 16, who says she was burned when kerosene splashed out of a lamp she was passing to her sister-in-law. Her burns are so deep they have damaged her nerve endings.

“I don’t have any pain,” Afsana insists in a weak whisper to her mother and the doctor. A respiratory infection, a complication from the burns, hampers her speech.

She has been in the unit for almost a week and the doctors didn’t think the beautiful teenager would survive this long, given her injuries. They also don’t believe Afsana is telling the truth and that she set herself on fire — a shameful but not uncommon act among young women in Afghan society.

Why do they suspect a self-inflicted burn?

Because Afsana is scorched all over her legs, torso and neck — more than 60 per cent of her body is affected. The burn unit staff presume it was done on purpose.

“People are not literate and they cannot imagine what will happen if they burn themselves,” said Dr. Ghafar Bawar, a Canadian citizen who has lived in Ottawa for more than a decade and recently returned to his home country to work as a plastic and reconstructive surgery consultant.

“When an accident happens, they try to stop it,” Bawar said. “In self-inflicted burns, a high percentage of the body surface area is affected. When it is more than 40 per cent of body surface area burnt . . . it’s usually self-inflicted.”

Herat in western Afghanistan has the only burn unit in the country, because this is where the need is the greatest. Setting oneself on fire, or self-immolation, is the preferred method of suicide for Afghan women under age 20 — it’s increasingly seen in Kandahar and common in Herat.

This year alone the Herat unit has seen about 70 cases of women setting themselves alight. Some burns at the unit are genuine accidents, but self-inflicted burns make up about 20 per cent of the cases the unit doctors see.

A burn unit at the Herat Regional Hospital has been running for four years, but the new building opened just last month. It was an international effort — constructed with U.S. government dollars, furnished by Italians and operated and supplied by the French organization HumaniTerra. The Afghan government pays some of the staff salaries.

The facility is clean and bright, with three storeys and three dozen beds, and is a significant improvement over older, cramped facilities where doctors did their operations in the washing room.

The unit has locking doors to prevent relatives from walking in anytime and eating or smoking around a patient’s open wounds.

But the new pleasant surroundings can’t soothe the worst human suffering.

The doctors don’t yet know Afsana’s circumstances. But self-immolation is commonly seen among girls and women who have a forced engagement to a man they don’t want to marry, or have married into a family where they are beaten or intimidated — by their husband or in-laws.

Almost three in five Afghan girls are married before the legal age of 16, according to statistics from the ministry of women’s affairs and women’s organizations. And between 60 and 80 per cent of all marriages are believed to be “forced” — a term that covers a range of practices including marrying off girls to repay debts or resolve conflicts between families, according to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

“The accessibility of fuel or petrol, the high incidence of women suffering post-traumatic stress and the apparent lack of alternatives are some of the causes which drive these women to commit this violent and excruciatingly painful act,” said a recent report from Medica Mondiale, a German-based international non-governmental organization.

“Research also illustrated a casual link with Iran. Some of the females who had committed this act had either lived previously in Iran or their husband had lived or worked there. Self-immolation in Iran accounts for 25-40 per cent of all suicides.”

One medical staffer at the unit, Ebrahim Mohammadi, has his own theory about why even men are turning to self-immolation. “After 28 years of war in Afghanistan, so many people have so many psychological problems.”

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Written by afghandevnews

November 28, 2007 at 4:09 pm

3 Responses

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  1. It is appaling what toles the afghans have taken, i am ashamed at the men for not treatinthier wives right although it clearly states in the Quran those who mistreat their wives and children will go straight to hell. As i am only of a young age and doing my GCSEs their isnt much i can do however i want to help these women by creating an organisation devoted to women who are suffering domestic violence and need somewhere to turn

    Faiza

    January 7, 2008 at 5:34 pm

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