Monday, January 24, 2011

Women on Fire: Afghanistan

Map of Afghanistan from

In 2010, 85 women set themselves on fire in Herat province, Afghanistan. Herat, an area where they speak Dari and have a close cultural bond with Iran, is one of the only regions tracking the shocking statistics of women so desperate to escape their lives that they set themselves on fire. Self-immolation has become almost endemic in Afghanistan. Unlike the practice of suttee, long outlawed in India, wherein a widow throws herself onto her husband's funeral pyre, women who commit self-immolation in Afghanistan are young- in their teens and early twenties. Although as Nic Robertson reported for CNN just last week that there are a myriad of reasons historically why waves of self-immolation occur, in Afghanistan, it is almost universally the act of of a woman stranded in a horrific situation. Abuse of all kinds, as readers of this blog know, is heaped upon too many Afghan women.

In a gambit to portray themselves as interested not just in human rights, but in women's rights, Iran's Press TV issued this report on self-immolation of young women in Afghanistan's nearby Herat province. Self-burning, as they call it, was up by 30% in 2010. Press TV cites in their summary article cultural and economic problems. Of course, Time magazine had its striking article in July of 2010 on this problem citing spousal and familial abuse as being the leading factors in self-immolation cases in Afghanistan.

Iran's Press TV, while certainly a political arm of the government of the Islamic Republic, at least provides us with figures about the 2010 in one Afghan province. Look at Herat on that map, people. And imagine that no other province appears to be tracking what happens to their young women. In a country of 29M (CIA World Fact Book) where men outnumber women 54% to 46% (women should be a precious resource then, right?), where the death rate in 2010 was 18 out of every thousand (third highest in the world), Herat province has a population of 1.7 million and by their own report 85 of their women attempted to commit self-immolation last year. Which if you read between the lines and look at those interviews means it just didn't kill them. When I think of living in a county of 2.5M people myself, and think of at least 85 people setting themselves on fire in a single calendar year because they are miserable, desperate and feel no hope, it is simply beyond my imagining. Although a number of aide organizations have targeted the problem of self-immolation in Herat, improvements have been "meager" according to a recent study by Help Women Heal fellow Harmonie Adams, a doctoral candidate in UCSF's Global Public Health program.

There's much I don't like about Press TV (maybe later this week I'll slap up the famous Sakineh interviews, which honestly raise as many questions as they answer) but they provide us access, in the above report, to data that we might not otherwise have.

Also, coming soon, Thelma Lee will be talking about GMOs, those pesky genetically modified organisms. Friend? Foe? Solution to world hunger? Destruction of naturally occurring species? What do you know about GMOs?

Readers interested in assisting women in Afghanistan can check out Help Women Heal or Women for Afghan Women.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

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