The number of self-immolation cases (cases where one lights him or herself on fire in hopes of dying) in Western Afghanistan increased by thirty percent this year. Experts believe that this region of Afghanistan sees a higher number of burn victims than other regions in the country due to it’s proximity to Iran, a culture known for suicide by burning. United Nations statistics show that at least forty-five percent of Afghan women marry before they turn eighteen, and many marry before they are sixteen years old. Many of these women, or girls, are given to men and to families as a means of paying a debt. This results in a lifetime of servitude and abuse, leading to feelings of desperation.
Burning oneself is also a common form of suicide in this region because matches and cooking fuel are readily available. Moreover, many women believe that if they light themselves on fire, they will die instantly. Physicians at the burn hospital in Herat, Afghanistan, the only burn hospital in the region, report a minimum of ten burn patients at any given time. Despite the prevalence of self-immolation cases, doctors say that in some cases the women are beaten by their husbands or in-laws and then thrown in ovens or set on fire.
Treating burn victims in the developing world is extremely difficult. Hospitals are typically the safest places for burn victims because they are the only sterile environments available, even to those families with higher incomes. Burn victims carry high risks of infection and sepsis, but many families cannot afford the antibiotics and treatment needed to keep these women alive post-trauma. In addition to the physical treatment needed, many of these women have mental disorders, like depression, and require psychological care.
The women, who manage to survive and are treated at the burn hospital in Herat, include both educated and illiterate women. Many of the educated women learned about freedom through radio and television following the fall of the Taliban, but they feel that they are unable to attain freedom in their own lives. Many of these women know that they should have rights. Burning themselves is a sign of desperation but also a way for them to show society that they are willing to die because of the lives they are forced to live; they feel that they have no way out. Some women burn themselves in hopes of gaining affection from their husbands or their extended families; most believe their in-laws will be nice to them if they are scarred or permanently deformed.
Oftentimes the fear of rape or being put in jail stops women from leaving or fleeing, and the risk of shaming one’s family stops women from seeking a divorce. Suicide is seen as the only way out.