Prague, 1 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Gurcharan Virdee is no stranger to the hardships facing women around the world.
Virdee works with Medica Mondiale, a German-based international organization supporting women in war and crisis situations.
"Before she committed suicide, my sister always said she hoped she would never return to Afghanistan and experience the closed atmosphere of Herat."
The group is currently working on a program to provide shelter to women living in the western Afghan province of Herat -- an area where Taliban-era repressions are still very much in place.
There, Virdee met several women who had attempted to kill themselves through self-immolation. The most tragic case, Virdee says, involved a young pregnant woman who survived despite suffering severe burns over 60 percent of her body.
"One of the women that I met, she was about 29. She already had four children, [and] she was seven months pregnant when she burned herself. She was experiencing problems with her husband and family; they wouldn't allow her to go and visit her own family. She set fire to herself. She then gave birth to a baby with no painkillers, nothing. The baby girl was taken by her aunt to look after her, and [the mother] died three weeks after giving birth," Virdee said.
A government delegation that traveled to Herat last week said at least 52 women in the province have killed themselves in recent months through self-immolation.
A Herat regional hospital last year recorded 160 cases of attempted suicide among girls and women between the ages of 12 and 50. But Virdee says the real number is probably much higher.
"The official statistics which the hospitals have are for the women who have actually come to the hospital, who can receive treatment. There are many other cases of women burning themselves in the villages, in the city, in some of the provinces. But these are women we can't give any estimates on, partly because they never reach the hospital or because they die in their villages or city. These are the cases that never come to the attention of any public authorities," Virdee said.
Afghan officials say poverty, forced marriages, and lack of access to education are the main reasons for suicide among women in Herat. Domestic violence is also widespread.
"A lot of women are saying that their husbands don't allow them to go and visit their families. There are severe restrictions on their movement, and also there is violence towards them -- both physical and psychological -- and intimidation and isolation," Virdee said.
During the five-year rule of the Taliban militia, women were not allowed to work or study. They could not leave their homes without a male escort and were forced to wear the all-encompassing burqa.
Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, women have once again been given the right to study and work. But activists say women in many parts of Afghanistan -- including Herat, which is ruled with an iron fist by provincial governor and warlord Ismail Khan -- still face repression and harassment.
Virdee says the continued crackdown on women's rights is contributing to the rise in self-immolation cases.
"The institutional repression of the women's movement is also a big factor because women are not allowed to go on their own in taxi cars, they are sort of socially policed if they are talking to other men, they have to be in the burqa, they have restriction on freedom to work. Just recently in Herat a women's shop which was employing a lot of women was closed. The driving school for women was also closed," Virdee said.
Ahmad Bassir is a Herat-based correspondent for Radio Free Afghanistan. He says women see no difference between their lives now and under the Taliban, and that desperation drives them to attempt suicide.
"They say we were hoping that after the fall of Taliban and after the transitional authority took power, the situation would improve for women, and there would be fewer restrictions. But we see that there have been no changes, and women are using this very violent act [of self-immolation] to show their protest. Most of these girls are literate, they are knowledgeable, and several of them are students," Bassir said.
Bassir adds that the despair is especially strong among women who once lived as refugees in neighboring Iran, where women enjoy far greater rights.
Mina, a Herat resident, told Radio Free Afghanistan that her sister recently committed suicide after returning to Afghanistan from Iran.
"Before, we lived in Iran, and we were used to the life and environment there, which was very good. But since we returned [to Afghanistan], to Herat, there has been a lot of pressure on us. Before she committed suicide, my sister always said she hoped she would never return to Afghanistan and experience the closed atmosphere of Herat. She also had family problems. She didn't like her fiance, but she was forced to get engaged to him," Mina said.
The rise of self-immolation among women in Herat is causing concern among the authorities and citizens. Herat Public Television last year broadcast a program urging husbands to treat their wives with greater consideration. Several NGOs are also trying to address the issue.
But Virdee says these are only small steps toward solving an endemic problem. In many cases, she says, social restrictions continue to prevent women from seeking what little help is available.
"At the moment, although there are lots of different women's NGOs and the department of women's affairs all trying to raise some kind of public awareness about this issue, the problem is that women are so restricted that for them to even get out of the house, to be able to seek support is also sometimes very difficult," Virdee said.
Nor is the problem restricted to Herat. Female suicide through self-immolation is common in many parts of Afghanistan and throughout all of South Asia.
But statistics are incomplete and largely anecdotal. There is a strong social stigma attached to suicide in Afghanistan, and many families are reluctant to seek help for victims of self-immolation or talk about the reasons behind the attempt.