Afghan Women’s Desperate Cry for Help
To what lengths will some Afghan women go to escape misogynistic social customs?
March 8, 2011
The great number of Afghan women who commit self-immolation (burning oneself to death) is one of the most tragic responses to gender violence in that country. Aside from the horror of dying, surviving this act makes its victims unfit for a normal life.
They are often permanently maimed, disfigured and shunned by their communities. Unless present laws regarding the protection of women are fully implemented, the consequences of gender violence will continue to exact a punishing effect on Afghan women’s lives.
Self-immolation seems to be the only response available to women who want to escape domestic abuse, forced marriage and other misogynistic social customs. Although many Afghans — including some religious leaders — reinforce these social customs based on their interpretation of Islam, these practices are inconsistent with Sharia law as well as with Afghan and international law, since they violate women’s basic human rights.
Reliable national statistics on this phenomenon are not available, since many families cover up these acts out of shame. At the same time, lack of good medical care and adequate government services means that such events are never officially recorded.
According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), 106 cases of self-immolation were registered in 2006 and 184 in 2007 — and it is feared that the phenomenon has continued to grow.
What makes the situation even more troublesome is that the police and judiciary do not conduct any formal investigations to determine the causes of suicide and self-burning by women, according to the AIHRC.
“There is a culture of impunity for those who push women to self-immolation and suicide,” remarks Homa Sultani, a researcher on women’s rights at the AIHRC.
Women’s self-immolation in Afghanistan is a reflection of their disadvantaged situation. Some statistics are telling: Eighty-seven percent of Afghan women are illiterate; more than one in three women experience physical, psychological or sexual abuse; and 70-80% of women face forced marriages.
Some people feel that marriage in Afghanistan is, in some cases, like a form of sale in which women are traded to solve family disputes or strengthen family bonds.
In this context, forced marriages with underage girls often occur in defiance of national law, which stipulates that women must be 16 to be eligible. Some girls are married off to men who are as much as five times their age.
The majority of Afghan women are victims of mental and sexual violence, which compels them to commit suicide or engage in drug abuse. Most of the recorded cases occur in Afghanistan’s main cities, while those that occur in rural areas remain unrecorded.
There is a way to lower these tragic incidents. In August 2009, the Afghan government enacted the Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW), which criminalizes many harmful traditional practices.
However, although the passing of that law was a significant achievement, the Human Rights, United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA HR) found that law enforcement authorities are often unwilling or unable to apply laws that protect women’s rights. Such inaction is one of the main factors that allow these practices to continue.
What is urgently needed is for the government of Afghanistan to create the conditions for the full implementation of the EVAW law. As the UNAMA HR has indicated, “Convictions under the EVAW law can result in deterring perpetrators of violence against women.”
Concurrently, Afghan President Hamid Karzai should indicate that respect for women’s rights is at the core of the government’s human rights policy.
Self-immolation seems to be the only response available to some Afghan women who want to escape domestic abuse, forced marriage and other misogynistic social customs.
The majority of Afghan women are victims of mental and sexual violence, which compels them to commit suicide or engage in drug abuse.