Self-immolation by women in the western Afghan province of Herat continues to alarm officials and aid workers more than a year after a delegation from Kabul investigated the trend. The delegation determined that within just a few months, at least 52 women in the province had burned themselves to death -- often to escape an abusive marriage. Afghan doctors and officials say at least 184 woman brought to Herat's regional hospital are thought to have set themselves on fire during the past year -- and more than 60 have died as a result. The real number of self-immolation suicides and attempted suicides is likely to be even higher because only those brought to a hospital are being registered.
Fifteen-year-old Fazela lies in an intensive care unit at Abdullah Ansari Hospital in Herat with burns across much of her body. Like many women from Herat who have tried to burn themselves to death during the past year, Fazela says she thought suicide was the only way to escape a physically and emotionally abusive husband she had been forced to marry.
"My name is Fazela. On that particular day when I burned myself, my husband -- who is also my cousin -- had a fight with me," she recalls. "He beat me. And after I was beaten, I poured kerosene over myself. Then I lit myself on fire. Before this, I really wanted to leave this house. But he took my burqa and did not let me go outside of the house. Now I really regret that I burned myself."
Fazela is being treated by doctor Abdullah Ardalan. He tells RFE/RL that he has been closely monitoring cases of suspected self-immolation by women in Herat since the Afghan government sent a delegation to the city a year ago to investigate the alarming trend.
"Since the start of the Afghan solar new year [on March 22, 2004], we have registered 234 burn victims, and 84 of those women have died as a result of their burns," Ardalan says. "Four or five of these women have been transferred to hospitals in Iran by their relatives. I believe that from the 84 victims who have died here, more than 60 of them are cases of suicide."
A member of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, says 184 of Herat's burn victims during the past year were women suspected of lighting themselves on fire.
Palwahsa Kakar, who directs the commission's section for women in Herat Province, says the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission does not have executive power. But she says "there are ways [we can help approach this problem]. We are in contact with the government. If we become aware of such cases, we contact the responsible governmental office. Also, we coordinate the case with nongovernmental aid groups that are working in these areas. Then we try to draw the attention of the judicial organs -- such as the Prosecutor's Office and the courts -- to the rights of these women. And we try to help these women fight for their rights, which are guaranteed under our Islamic laws."
Mohammad Azam, the deputy chief justice of Herat's provincial court, says many Afghan institutions have little information about the rights of women. Azam says a woman has the right to a divorce if she can prove she suffers mental abuse from a lack of "psychological unity" with her husband.
Still, aid workers and human-rights researchers note that social restrictions often prevent Afghan women from seeking the help available to them.
Azam says poverty and domestic violence are common reasons for attempted suicide by women in Herat.
"There are also cases where the relatives and friends of the husband have played a role in a bad relationship. It is not only the result of the husband's behavior," he says. "A woman's own relatives may have forced her to marry a particular man. Or girls may be forced to get married at a very young age. So when such a girl grows up, she feels obligated to go back to the home of her own father and burn herself there."
At the Herat hospital, several teenagers are now recovering from burns they say they received when the mothers of their husbands poured boiling water on them. One young wife named Farzana, not older than 17, broke into tears as she tried to explain her plight to RFE/RL from her hospital bed.
"My mother-in-law burned me," she says. "I had put a pot full of water on the stove, and my mother-in-law took that from the stove and poured it onto the ground. I took this pot, filled it with water again and put it back on the stove. She took it and poured the water away again. The second time, she slapped my face and burned me. Now I have no money whatsoever for my treatment. I'm close to dying from hunger. My mother is very old and has become a beggar."
With Farzana in a state of emotional breakdown, her mother continued to explain her story, saying she received daily beatings from her husband. When Farzana tried to run away, she was restricted to the house and was allowed only a small daily food ration. The mother says Farzana was burned because she was begging for food from her husband and mother-in-law.
Zama Coursen-Neff is a researcher with Human Rights Watch who has co-authored several reports on the plight of women in Herat since 2002.
Coursen-Neff says that, regardless of whether a woman is burned because of attempted suicide or attempted murder, both instances demonstrate a lack of choice for women in Herat and the failure of the provincial government to provide protection for those in abusive, forced marriages.