Self-immolation - the dark secret of Iraqi Kurdish women

Few admit to self-harm, and blame their horrendous burns - from which most never recover - on a cooking accident. The secrecy makes it difficult to track statistics, which range from the dozens to hundreds dead each year.

Self-immolation - the dark secret of Iraqi Kurdish women

Heshw Mohammed tried to kill herself three times when her father would not let her marry the man she loved, swallowing tablets and surviving only because her stomach was pumped.

Beautiful, timid, and abused, she exemplifies what campaigners and medics warn is a disturbing increase in women killing themselves - largely by self-immolation - in northern Iraq's relatively-peaceful Kurdish provinces.

"My father forced me to marry someone else. We were engaged just 15 days, during which I tried three times to commit suicide," says Heshw, her eyes cast down, her fingers clenching and unclenching.

Now aged 20, she has been living in a women's shelter in the city of Sulaimaniyah for two years, virtually shut off from the world, with no psychologist and nothing to fill her time.

"My father would kill me if I went home. He killed my boyfriend. I don't have any hope for the future. I'm just sitting here, waiting," she says, refusing refreshment, her expressionless voice barely more than a whisper.

Women's campaigners say Heshw's story is all too common. What is unusual is that she took pills. Most Iraqi Kurdish women drench their bodies in cooking fuel from head to toe, and set fire to themselves.

Few admit to self-harm, and blame their horrendous burns - from which most never recover - on a cooking accident. The secrecy makes it difficult to track statistics, which range from the dozens to hundreds dead each year.

"Every year, there has been an increase in killing. Saying it's a cooking accident is just a lie. We must put pressure on the government to change the law," says Aso Kamal, a 42-year-old British Kurdish Iraqi campaigner.

He quotes from newspaper reports that from 1991 to 2007, 12,500 women were murdered for reasons of "honor" or committed suicide in the three Kurdish provinces of Iraq; 350 in the first seven months of this year.

"We want to speak out about this. There is silence in Kurdistan. People say it's a family matter. We want to change the patriarchal system in Kurdistan. Honor killing is against the law, but the law is not being enforced," he says.

Only five people have been arrested in connection with the deaths - none of whom have been brought to the courts, he adds.

His organization, the Doaa Network Against Violence - named after a 17-year-old girl stoned to death for eloping - is campaigning for a government budget to tackle domestic violence, and has launched an awareness campaign.

Kurdo Qaradaghi, a surgeon who performs reconstructive surgery at the specialist burns hospital in Sulaimaniyah, says most women with burns from the countryside had attempted suicide.

"We have a problem. A serious problem. It may be in self-sacrifice, or it may be extreme attention-seeking ... The youngest are aged 12 to 14," he says.

The Women's Union of Kurdistan in Sulaimaniyah said it recorded 83 women burning themselves in the first six months of last year; 95 in the first half of 2007.

Touring the burns unit at the hospital, plastic surgeon Srood Tawfiq believes few of the excuses, lingering by the beds of two women at death's door from horrific burns that he says could only have been self-inflicted.

"On average, we admit one such patient a day. We suspect most of the women of suicide. Only once did I see a young boy say he attempted suicide. He wanted to a marry a girl, and they refused," he says.

Flailing her heavily-bandaged arms around a face horribly disfigured with raw burns, 39-year-old Shawnim Mahmoud has spent two days screaming in agony after being brought in following what she said was a cooking accident.

"She has 79-percent burns. Even if a cooking machine exploded, it doesn't cause these kind of burns. There's no chance she'll live," says Tawfiq.

In the next bed lies Sirwa Hassan, a 27-year-old mother-of-three from a village near the Iranian border, tubes running in and out of her nose, barely whimpering as her 86 percent burns slowy kill her.

"She said it was kerosene, but kerosene will not make this kind of explosion. I don't expect her to live," Tawfiq says, gazing down at her bandaged feet, burnt shoulders, and flesh, desperately-sad eyes watching him in silence.

Anna Ahmed Mohammed, a physiotherapist at the burns unit, and one of the few in whom patients confide, fears suicide is increasing as the economic situation deteriorates in Iraq, and life gets more difficult.

"There are more economic problems because of the war, especially in Sulaimaniyah, because more people from the south come to live here. Salaries aren't enough to buy what you need. Prices have got up," she says.

"Here, the men always rule their wives. Sometimes, it's unbearable, and they can't take it any longer. Fire is so easy. You can find it at home. Everyone has kerosene at home and a match," she adds.

Narmen Rostam, 16, has been in hospital for 30 days with burn injuries. Sitting in her tartan hospital pyjamas, she sobs on and off, and admits to being depressed, yet she professes no sympathy for those attempting suicide.

"They are very foolish. They have no mind in their brain. We used to tell them you'll be suffering this pain, now, and in the other life."

Medics cannot be sure that her own story about a cooking accident is true.


Last Mod: 23 Ağustos 2007, 17:10
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