Acts of self-immolation have been used as a tool for political protests around the world. In Saigon, a Buddhist monk set himself on fire to protest his government’s intolerance of Buddhism. In Tunisia, a young man also used self-immolation in protest which jump started the 2010-2011 revolution in this region. What would drive a 10 year old girl to set herself on fire in Afghanistan?
The political unrest in Afghanistan is certainly a source of the desperate act of self- immolation used by several young girls. The current Afghan government has tried to aid in the lives of young girls by making 16 years of age the legal marrying age. Nevertheless, the existence of the practice of child brides continues to be socially acceptable.
There are several social factors, such as poverty and honor, which contribute to a child being married before the legal age. Fathers in Afghanistan may face a variety of reasons for choosing to sell their daughters to become wives. Often men are forced to settle a gambling debt or loan by selling their daughters. Unfortunately, men may see their daughters as property from which they can make a profit to feed their families. Once a child is arranged to be married, they are usually taken out of school inhibiting them from continuing their education.
Child brides are often forced into marriages and are confronted with several challenges which often lead them to self-immolation. Gender inequities in Afghanistan make it socially acceptable for a man to forcefully punish his wife. Wives are often publically flogged or beaten by their husband. Pregnant girls may be brutally beaten to the point of miscarriage. This brutality is often also mirrored by mother-in-laws who continue the vicious cycle of being mean to new wives. If a child is married off to settle her father’s debt, gossip will bring shame upon the child which may lead her to want to end her life. The combination of shame, abuse, poverty and a lack of education drives these girls to choose suicide as their only way out of their horrible situations.
Running away or seeking the help of the police is not an option for these girls. Social norms make it unlikely that men will be persecuted for any violent actions against their wives. If they run away from their husbands they could be shunned from their towns, publically flogged, or even imprisoned. There are limited women’s shelters in Afghanistan and even if a girl makes it there they could be taken back by their husbands. The only form of escape is to choose a fiery death.
Although these child brides feel that their futures are bleak, societal and governmental efforts would provide alternatives to suicide. The government of Afghanistan could raise the legal marrying age for girls or better enforce the current legal age. In addition, men who commit domestic violence need to be persecuted. Social norms about the roles of wives need to be adjusted to bring an end to violence against women. Self-immolation will continue to bring more young girls to an early grave unless several governmental and social changes occur.
- Catherine Posada