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Afghanistan: Kabul Conference Discusses Self-Immolation

An Afghan woman in hospital after attempting self-immolation (file photo) (RAWA) PRAGUE, November 14, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- A three-day conference on self-immolation of women -- and men -- in Afghanistan and other countries opens today in Kabul. Representatives from countries such as Iran, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and India are to attend. RFE/RL spoke with Ancil Adrian-Paul, the program manager in Afghanistan for the German women's rights organization Medica Mondiale, and organizer of the conference, about the problem of self-immolation.

RFE/RL: What is the aim of the conference that is due to begin in Kabul?

Ancil Adrian-Paul: The aim of the conference really is firstly to actually present the findings and recommendations from the research project that the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission [AIHR] and Medica Mondiale did. The AIHR did [research] in five different provinces and we did [research] in three provinces: Kabul, Herat, and Wardak. So we want to present the findings and also to create a space and opportunity for Afghans from different walks of life to actually share their views and for response strategies with other Afghans. What we are trying to do is to move beyond the talk about what is the problem to what is the solution. One of the actual objectives is to learn and share with people coming from the region who have experience and who have dealt with self-immolation before in their countries so we have speakers from several different countries in the region. We've got [people from] Iran, Iraq, India, Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

"One of the interesting things that was coming out was that 28 percent of the victims that we followed were males between the ages of 19 to 50. So it's not just women who are doing it."

RFE/RL: These are all countries where cases of self -immolation of women have been recorded. Why do you think women resort to such a drastic measure in these countries? Is there a common reason?

Adrian-Paul: I'm waiting to hear what the speakers will say but I think to some extent -- domestic violence -- from what I've seen, has a lot to do with it. But what we have found in Afghanistan is that it's not just family violence, there are cases of mental illness as well -- you know there are different reasons why people do these things and, of course, when we talk about violence against human beings, there are different types of violence; for example you've got physical violence when you find that they're being beaten or being forced to do things they don't want to do; you have sexual violence; you might have incest where a relative could be -- a father, brother, whatever might want to have sex with a young woman; so there are different reasons that are coming out from the research that we did."

RFE/RL: What are the figures that you have on the cases of self-immolation in Afghanistan? Is it increasing?

Adrian-Paul: The research that we did is qualitative, not quantitative, but basically we managed to get some figures that I think are quite startling. We found out that, sadly, self-immolation and suicide are prevalent not only in the provinces that we looked at but also in 14 other provinces, for example Jalalabad, Logar, Badakhshan, Kandahar, etc. So [it exists] in quite a significant amount of the country.

RFE/RL: Are women from cities also resorting to self-immolation or is it more widespread among women from villages and women who are illiterate?

Adrian-Paul: Here in Afghanistan people tend to say that it's the women who know what their rights are, you know, the better off women in the urban areas; but we found that the cases are mainly among illiterate people. Quite a high percentage of them were married but few of them were also single and the reasons why they commit suicide are quite similar. Some of the victims that we followed were aged between [30 and 60 years]. I think there needs to be a country-wide study on self-immolation because also there seems to be a trend where self-immolation is increasing rather than decreasing. I think one of the interesting things that was coming out was that 28 percent of the victims that we followed were males between the ages of 19 to 50. So it's not just women who are doing it, it's women and men -- and it's women and men from different classes; it's women and men from different ethnic groups. All ethnic groups.

RFE/RL: But in general it is more widespread among women?

Adrian-Paul: Yes, and the literature that I looked at points out the fact that, it really highlights maybe that a lot of these self-immolation cases are related to sexual abuse. But in Afghanistan I think its not mainly sexual abuse, I think it's violence of different types.

An Afghan doctor in Herat attends a female immolation victim in 2004 (AFP)

When you look at people actually being beaten, people being forced into marriages that they don't want, the exchange of girls, the exchange of girls to prevent bloodshed.

RFE/RL: Could you also tell us briefly what is being done to tackle this problem in Afghanistan?

Adrian-Paul: This is what the conference is all about ,[to bring to attention to the fact] that nothing is being done in the real sense although in some villages...there might be attempts made by the head man in the village to council people, but not in a systematic way and that is why I think this conference is very important to bring together all the [decision makers]: the government, the parliament, the religious people, the mental health people, the public sector because we want to make them aware about the public health and human rights [issues] that are happening here and they need to deal with it. They cannot just continue with their...silence and bury their heads in the sand.

RFE/RL: So you hope the conference will bring more attention to the problem and raise awareness?

Adrian-Paul: Yes, I hope the conference will raise awareness and move some toward breaking the collusion of silence; and the reason why we have a regional conference is to demonstrate to Afghans that it's not only a problem of Afghanistan, it happens everywhere but people [in other countries] take steps to deal with it.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.