The May 22 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine had an article that stopped my heart cold. It is entitled, Driven to a Fiery Death - The Tragedy of Self-Immolation in Afghanistan.
It begins with these tragic statistics:
"Afghanistan, a country with 32 million residents, has been engaged in constant conflict for the past 30 years. This instability and insecurity have resulted in a stark economic climate and a very low life expectancy. More than half of the people in Afghanistan live in poverty, and 40% of the adult labor force is unemployed. Life expectancy is 44 years, and annual mortality is 20 per 1000 residents."
Against this backdrop of destitution, the authors superimpose a horrendous tragedy.
"70 to 80% of female Afghanis are forced into marriages, and 57% are married before 16 years of age; 84% of women are illiterate as compared with 69% of men, and women are half as likely as men to have completed primary school. Afghan women have a fertility rate of 7.5 births per mother, and with a skilled birth attendant present at only 14% of births, the country's maternal mortality is the second highest in the world."
These facts, however, do not represent the worst tragedy. That is yet to be described.
"The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and the Afghan Ministry of Women's Affairs report the identification of 106 cases of self-immolation (by women)
"Self-immolation is the act of burning oneself as a means of suicide."
Half of these cases were women between the ages 16 to 19. This is a picture of a young burn victim. The gauze over her face is used to keep flies off.
"Often, self-immolation was said to have occurred after victims spoke out against or sought help in alleviating the violence to which they were subjected — but were ignored." Violence perpetrated by husbands, in-laws, and husbands' other wives.
To burn yourself, because it must be a lesser torture than those to which you are subjected every day by your husband, by your family; to disfigure yourself as testimony against those who have savaged you; to seek release in death not through the quietness of a knife but through the explosiveness of fire -- it stops my heart. I don't know what to do.....
Is donating money to groups on the ground, working for women's rights in Afghanistan enough? No...but it's a start.