Family Tension in Tajikistan Fuels Scourge of Self-immolation

  • 28 November 2007

TAJIKISTAN — Amina met her husband for the first time on her wedding night. A screen separated the newlyweds, and Amina recalled trembling with fear and anticipation over meeting, for the very first time, the man who would be her husband and the father of her children.

Mazura holds her baby boy at a UNFPA Women’s Counselling Centre. She recently sought the centre's help after suffering abuse by her husband and in-laws. Photo: Warrick Page/PANOS

He lifted her veil and then did something completely unexpected: he reached over and wrapped both of his big hands around the 14-year-old’s throat so tightly that Amina could feel herself go lightheaded and then begin to pass out. “This is to show you who is boss,” he hissed while her new mother and father-in-law smiled on approvingly. Her first sexual encounter was a nightmare of repeated assaults. “I knew then,” as she told her maternal aunt afterwards, “that from that point onward, I would be better off dead.”

Beautiful scenery, careworn faces

The road to Khatlon, which lies a day’s walk away from Amina’s village, winds through a landscape of knobby hills that protrude through the earth like a spinal column through dusty skin. Donkeys, scrawny cattle and sheep browse aimlessly through the parched landscape while sunburned women wrapped in brightly coloured headscarves line the main road selling tin buckets filled with pomegranates. A canopy of vivid blue sky contrasts with the brilliant yellow of the surrounding mountains.

It would all be so scenic if it weren’t for the weariness that lines the careworn faces hidden beneath the headscarves. It is here where the 10-year civil war—that claimed the lives of an estimated 50,000 people—took its greatest toll. And it is in towns and villages such as these that UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, and partners are working to end another kind of war that persists through times of both peace and conflict. It is the scourge of domestic violence. In Tajikstan, as elsewhere, it is a war where the casualties are all on one side.

"We are brought up from a very young age to not say anything and to have no point of view."

--Maujuddin Sharifova

At the UNFPA-supported Women’s Centre in Ghamkori, the district capital, social workers receive a steady parade of women who are assaulted, not only by their husbands and in-laws, but also by traditions that force women and girls into dependency and dictate whom they are to marry and when. Tajikistan, like other countries of the former Soviet Union, has cast off the mantle of communism only to embrace cultural traditions that many see as oppressive as the old Soviet ideology—if not more so. When it comes to the status of women, many activists contend that the former system was better.

It is a sunny Wednesday morning and one woman after another crowds into a welcoming reception area to speak to counsellors and the one lawyer who can help them find legal recourse. First to come in is 31-year-old Mazura, a delicately boned woman dressed in a bright red salwar kameez—Tajikistan’s traditional dress. She has brought along her diminutive three-year-old, who, despite his age, looks preternaturally serious between bouts of giggling.

Living at the mercy of in-laws

Cases like Mazura’s are not uncommon: She was married to a man she had never met before her wedding night. Two years ago she was kicked out of their house by her in-laws when her youngest child, the little boy on her lap, fell seriously ill. Since then, her husband has taken another wife who is now caring for Mazura’s other two children. Mazura has nothing to eat, no clothes to get her little boy through the harsh winter ahead and no legal recourse—at least for the time being. Because her religious marriage was never legally registered, she and her children are not entitled to minimal support under Tajik law. She is staying with her parents, but they are old, ill and caring for her disabled younger brother. They want Mazura to reconcile with her husband.

Mazura does not want to. She is not willing to return to the abuse meted out by both her husband and her in-laws.

In Tajikistan, rural areas are being emptied of young men who migrate to Russia and the Persian Gulf countries in search of work, leaving their young wives at the mercy of in-laws. Some women are literally married for only a week or so before their husbands leave. Isolated in a strange and often hostile family, with no real emotional connection to their husband or their husband’s family, such women can become literal household slaves—particularly if they have not given birth. In extended households—with as many as four families in a single dwelling—it is the mother-in-law who reigns supreme.

Gulchehra Muhiddinova is a medical co-ordinator at a UNFPA Women’s Counselling Centre, which deals with victims of gender-based violence. Photo: Warrick Page/PANOS

In this entrenched system, the most merciless abusers are often the very women who were once abused themselves. Many young husbands, even those that stay with their wives, will side with their families. With no prior romantic attachment to their young brides, they are influenced by cultural traditions that consider parental authority as tantamount to divine law.

What are Mazura’s options? “None,” Centre director Maujuddin Sharifova says bluntly. “In the short term, her only option is to reconcile, and we’re negotiating with the in-laws to allow her to live in a smaller house adjacent to the main one. In the long term, we might be able to help. But winter is coming, and she has nowhere to go.”

Nowhere to go, nothing to eat

Nowhere to go, nothing to eat, no medicines for the children and no clothing for the winter: For Centre workers, it is a refrain that rings out over and over. For the women who seek their help, it is a cry of desperation and an indictment of a world that has radically changed—and not for the better.

“We are brought up from a very young age to not say anything and to have no point of view,” says Ms. Sharifova. “The mother-in-laws say, ‘We went through all of these hardships, and you have to go through them too. I didn’t die and you won’t either.’”

But dying they are and increasingly, it is by their own hand. Perhaps no trend speaks to the increasing powerlessness of rural Tajik women than the practice of self-immolation: suicide through burning. The number of women known to commit suicide by first drenching themselves with gas, or some other flammable substance, and then lighting a match, has risen from 48 in 2003 to 63 in 2006 in the area surrounding the capital city of Dushanbe.

Because Islam has specific edicts against suicide, researchers believe the actual number is far higher but that many deaths are attributed to other causes, such as cooking accidents. While self-immolation may not be, strictly speaking, a form of gender-based violence, it is usually a response to family violence – which generally has a gender component. Many victims are driven to desperation, not because their husbands abuse them, but because they are left at the mercy of their in-laws while the husband works abroad. During the long winter months, when entire villages are cut off from the main roads, household tensions can become unbearable. But why choose what is surely the most painful and disfiguring method to end one’s life?

Inside the burn unit

City Hospital Number Three lies along a leafy, tree-lined boulevard near the centre of Tajikistan’s capital city Dushanbe. It is one of only a handful of clinics and hospitals throughout the country with a burn unit. Dr. Bozorov Sabzali, is Chief doctor at the hospital looks weary and sad under a mop of closely curled hair.

“Most young women won’t admit what they’ve done. But we do know what the reasons are behind this phenomenon,” Dr. Sabzali says. “Most self-immolate because of family tensions – a second wife or a bullying mother-in-law.”

The burn unit has logged 26 cases of self-immolation during the last nine months alone, according to Dr. Sabzali. Of those 26 young women, seven died. Of those who survived, most have suffered burns to between 50 to 70 per cent of their bodies.

The numbers may seem relatively small. However, Dr. Sabzali maintains the actual deaths are likely to be far higher. Many burned women never make it to the hospital because of the remote location of so many villages. In addition, many patients are too ashamed to admit that they have attempted suicide. Deaths may be covered up by family members and attributed to other causes. In any case, there is a paucity of reliable data about this and many other aspects of life in this tiny, land-locked country.

Family tension leads to acts of desperation

Even in Dushanbe, the expertise and equipment necessary to deal with burns of such horrifying magnitude are simply not available. Although, the hospital does have psychologists on hand to deal with the emotional scars survivors face, the road back to health can he a difficult one. In smaller villages in remote regions there is little or no treatment available.

“Many of our patients have physical disabilities that cannot be fixed,” Sabzali says. “We have no access to artificial skin, and in many cases we don’t even have the ability to do skin grafts—this can lead to fused limbs and some very serious deformities.” For that reason, he says, surgeons tend to focus on the face because that is what people see first.

So why do they do it? Sabzali shakes his head. “They don’t think about the consequences,” he says. “They choose burning to instil drama and fear and to show how much pain they are in.

“The strange thing is that when we talk to them afterwards they all want to survive,” he added. “They want to live but because of the burns their lives will be so much harder than they were before.”

And Amina? One day last spring she filled her pantaloons with rocks, tied the ends and waded into the icy river half a kilometre from her in-law’s home. In August, after the water levels had dropped, a young boy herding goats spotted her gaily patterned headscarf draped over a few dead tree branches poking out of the river.

Amina had nowhere left to go.  

— Pat Leidl

Tajikistan: Eroding Social Indicators

Tajikistan is one of the most impoverished countries in Central Asia. But this was not always the case. As the Soviet Union has disintegrated, so too have the institutions that lent stability to the lives of all Tajik Soviet citizens—universal healthcare, access to quality education for both girls and boys and guaranteed employment. The old infrastructures have crumbled -- to be replaced by laissez-faire capitalism exacerbated by a ‘shadow economy’ that is largely fueled by the drug trade and remittances from abroad.

Although the average official wage is only $20 per month, the shadow economy, with its instant millionaires and oligarchs, is pushing the price of staples, healthcare, housing and fuel beyond the reach of ordinary people. Increasingly the most vulnerable are being left behind: women, children and the elderly. In the capital, Dushanbe, the newly rich cruise the wide boulevards in brand-new cars, while in the countryside, scarecrow-thin old women and scrawny children haunt the doorways of shops and beg by the roadside.

By almost all indicators, Tajikistan is sliding backwards. In some regions, as many as 80 per cent of all births take place at home – something unheard of in Soviet era where fully 95 per cent of all deliveries occurred in hospital. According to the latest estimates, the country’s maternal mortality rate in 2005 was 170 per 100,000 live births, a 70 per cent increase over the estimates from 2000. The gender gap in education is widening as well – from zero during the communist era to 35 per cent fewer girls attending secondary education in 2006. Women on average earn 45 per cent of what men do – down from 25 per cent in 1991.

For an enterprising minority, life has never been better. For a growing majority, the ills of economic transition are not so much about ‘growing pains’ as the fading away of any future hope. And it is women, children and the elderly who are paying the price.

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