Although Afghan women have attained greater freedoms since Western soldiers first arrived in their country in 2001, one imprint of the restrictions placed on women under Taliban rule remains: forced marriages. Now brides who find themselves in these hellish arrangements are resorting to a disturbing method of escape—they’re burning themselves to death. Earlier this month, it was reported that the Herat Regional Hospital burns unit in western Afghanistan had handled 51 cases of female self-immolation between January and July of this year. Of those cases, 38 patients succumbed to their wounds.
The doctor in charge of the burns unit, Mohamed Aref Jalali, said that the practice comes from Iran, which has one of the highest rates of self-immolation in the world, especially among Kurds living in rural areas along the border. Many Afghan refugees adopted the custom when they fled there during the decade-long war with the Soviet Union that ended in 1989, and continued it when they returned home in the 1990s. The popularity of burning oneself to death has since grown among poor, uneducated Afghan women who live in areas where young girls are traditionally forced into marriage.
Afghan laws stipulate that girls under the age of 16 should not be married, but an astonishing 60 per cent are forced into marriages when they are children anyway. Choosing death over marriage is a result of the stark daily routine of Afghan women: many are treated like slaves, kept inside and ordered to cook and clean, while others are repeatedly beaten or raped.
As part of the coalition efforts in Afghanistan, women have been encouraged to break the shackles that once bound them. Under Taliban rule, girls were banned from attending school, while women were publicly flogged—or in some cases executed—for breaking the law. Education and grassroots programs are widely seen as vehicles for surmounting these problems, but with 80 per cent of the female population illiterate, change will happen slowly.