For Afghan Wives, a Desperate, Fiery Way Out

HERAT, Afghanistan — Even the poorest families in Afghanistanhave matches and cooking fuel. The combination usually sustains life. But it also can be the makings of a horrifying escape: from poverty, from forced marriages, from the abuse and despondency that can be the fate of Afghan women.

The night before she burned herself, Gul Zada took her children to her sister’s for a family party. All seemed well. Later it emerged that she had not brought a present, and a relative had chided her for it, said her son Juma Gul.

This small thing apparently broke her. Ms. Zada, who was 45, the mother of six children and who earned pitiably little cleaning houses, ended up with burns on nearly 60 percent of her body at the Herat burn hospital. Survival is difficult even at 40 percent.

“She was burned from head to toe,” her son remembers.

The hospital here is the only medical center in Afghanistan that specifically treats victims of burning, a common form of suicide in this region, partly because the tools to do it are so readily available. Through early October, 75 women arrived with burns — most self-inflicted, others only made to look that way. That is up nearly 30 percent from last year.

But the numbers say less than the stories of the patients.

It is shameful here to admit to troubles at home, and mental illness often goes undiagnosed or untreated. Ms. Zada, the hospital staff said, probably suffered from depression. The choices for Afghan women are extraordinarily restricted: Their family is their fate. There is little chance for education, little choice about whom a woman marries, no choice at all about her role in her own house. Her primary job is to serve her husband’s family. Outside that world, she is an outcast.

“If you run away from home, you may be raped or put in jail and then sent home and then what will happen to you?” asked Rachel Reid, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who tracks violence against women.

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