Suicides Drive Move to Help Afghan Women

Seeking to escape cultural oppression and economic hardship, an alarming number of Afghan women are taking their own lives. The trend has prompted a bill aimed at ending such practices as forced marriages.

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In post-Taliban Afghanistan, life is still not easy. There's war still, poverty, unemployment and the never-ending struggle for power in this tribal society. The pressure is greatest on Afghan women, who continue to be treated as second-class citizens, which is why a growing number of young women in Afghanistan are choosing another way out of their desperation: suicide.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story from Kabul.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Almost nightly, Afghan girls like this 17-year-old are half-carried by relatives into emergency rooms here. If they are conscious, they struggle with their doctors and refuse to talk. This petite girl with tussled black hair is no exception.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Calm yourself, the doctor tells the gasping teen. From her sister-in-law, he learns the girl has swallowed sharp jewelry in a bid to kill herself. How many girls are attempting suicide in Afghanistan these days is hard to say. Government agencies and women's groups are only now beginning to track them.

Even then, only dramatic cases such as girls setting themselves on fire are generally recorded. In 2006, the official Afghan number of self-emulations was 105. Officials stressed they are tiny fraction of the true number of suicides, and those numbers are climbing.

So why are girls killing themselves? The reasons vary, says Dr. Soraya Sobrang of the Independent Human Rights Commission.

Dr. SORAYA SOBRANG (Independent Human Rights Commission): (Through translator) Family violence and bad parts of tradition that lead to forced and early marriages are the main factors.

NELSON: Nadia Hanife(ph), director of the Afghan Women's Education Center, adds many of the victims are former refugees who tasted a freer life in Iran and Pakistan. Coming back here only to be married off by their fathers to collect a dowry, settle a debt, or repent for a crime just doesn't cut it. Hanife says many of these women are also beaten by their husbands or in-laws.

Ms. NADIA HANIFE (Director, Afghan Women Education Center): They don't have any other option, where they should go. Other family members, they will never accept them. So what they can do? Nothing.

NELSON: She says the idea of female suicide is something many pick up from Iranian women. According to a report an Iranian doctor delivered at a recent forum here, Iran has the third highest rate of self-emulation after India and China.

Fatma(ph) is one Afghan refugee who got the idea to kill herself in Iran. The 18-year-old says suicide is one of the few choices Afghan girls can make on their own. Fatma attempted suicide two months ago by swallowing 25 sleeping pills. The beautician says she wanted to escape a broken heart and arguments with her parents.

that come from their families or from their friends or from society. This makes some do these things.

NELSON: Fatma, who wears Western jeans with a black veil over her hair, says she and her friends frequently talk about ways to commit suicide almost as much as they talked about boys. She says she regrets trying to kill herself, but she still thinks there are worse options for an Afghan girl than suicide.

FATMA: (Through translator) One of my friends, she ran away with a guy, but two or three weeks later returned home. That's not right. I think it's better to swallow an overdose of pills than to ruin her reputation or her parent's reputation.

NELSON: Women's advocates say changing such thinking isn't easy, nor is providing them with alternatives like counseling or shelters. Maliha Sahaq, deputy minister of women's affairs, says President Hamid Karzai hopes to help Afghan women with a proposed law that will go before parliament by March.

The law would ban forced marriages and dowries, and boost women's protection against domestic violence. But Sahaq admits it's an uphill battle, given centuries of tribal traditions that ignore Islamic tenets protecting women.

Ms. MALIHA SAHAQ (Deputy Minister, Women's Affairs, Afghanistan): (Through translator) We live in a society where men rule. Because of men's rule, women don't have any place. This is the truth.

NELSON: But Hanife of the Women's Center says it'll take more than a bill to curb suicides. She says without more gender sensitivity among police and judges, no law for women will be enforced.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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