Butterflies in Bottles
Butterflies in Bottles
Marzia, 21, lies screaming on an old and dirty mattress on one side of the room in the final week of the year. The smell of her body is unbearable even from the main entrance of her family’s two-room house in Herat, Afghanistan.
It has been eight months since she set herself on fire. She doesn’t want to go to the hospital because she doesn’t want to show her body to others. Her mother has been caring for her at home in the one room where her parents and four siblings live. The other room in the house overflows with garbage.
An ambulance takes Marzia to the hospital against her will, as she cries and curses her family and two women from the Western Afghan Women’s Network, WAWN, a nonprofit network of nongovernmental organizations aiming to empower Afghan women, for taking her there, says one of the women, WAWN director Hassina Neekzad.
The women put on gloves and help the clinic’s nurse wash Marzia before a doctor comes to bandage her wounds.
Eventually, as her pain subsides, she thanks those around her for bringing her to the hospital.
After one week, she returned home with an order from the doctor to receive better nourishment. The WAWN staff collected money and brought her raw food and fruit. The staff later tried to take her to a Red Cross clinic, where she was told she could stay until she could move and walk.
But Neekzad says when she visited the clinic, Marzia was gone. Neekzad went to their house and realized why she had to go home – Marzia and her family were addicted to opium.
Eight months before, Marzia had dosed herself with gasoline and set herself on fire, determined to die. She had been forced to marry a poor, illiterate old man whom she had never met and could not bear the difficult, miserable life that followed.
The daughter of a middle-class family, Marzia used to live in Iran, where she attended school until 11th grade. Her family moved to Afghanistan three years ago after her father became handicapped by a mine while working on a street in Islam Qala, where Iran borders Afghanistan.
Marzia’s family moved to Herat city, but their economic situation was desolate and her father was not able to work. Her little brothers were busy picking up garbage on the streets, and she lost her 12-year-old sister to diabetes. Her family forced her into a marriage that eventually pushed her to try to take her life.
Marzia’s is not an isolated case. Neekzad says that Marzia is one of the 60 cases of women affected by domestic violence taken on by her network alone last year.
A shocking number of Afghan women suffer domestic abuse. Self-immolation, or intentionally setting oneself on fire, is just one of the many ways in which women experience violence in the home. The result is not only a violation of basic women’s rights, but also a suppression of their freedom to express their views and beliefs and their ability to participate in social and religious life. The threats to their physical security prevents them from realizing their social, political, economic and cultural rights.
The U.N. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women defines domestic violence as including, but not limited to, physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family. An overwhelming majority of women, 87.2 percent, have experienced at least one form of physical, sexual or psychological violence or forced marriage in Afghanistan, according to a 2008 report by journalists Diya Nijhowne and Lauryn Oates, which presents the findings of surveys of women in 4,700 households in 16 provinces located across the Afghanistan on domestic violence. In Kandahar, a province in southern Afghanistan, 79.5 percent of women reported having faced physical violence in their lifetimes, 92.7 percent reported having faced psychological violence, 42.6 percent reported having faced sexual violence and 87.5 percent reported having been forced into marriage.
The majority of these women knew their perpetrators, according to the report. In addition to being violated by their husbands, the women also reported being violated by other members of their husband’s families. Of the women who reported being domestically abused, more than 30 percent named their husbands as their perpetrators, while almost 53 percent named in-laws.
The report also found that women who experience one type of violence are more likely to suffer other forms as well.
Marzia was the victim of self-immolation, but there are many other vicious forms of domestic violence that endanger women in Afghanistan.
Laila, a women’s rights activist who didn’t want her job and real name mentioned in order to protect her security, narrated the story of Shafiga.
Shafiga, 32, is a mother of four children in Herat. Her oldest child is 13, and the youngest one is only 3. Her family is poor and lives in a one-room house at a cemetery, where they take care of the grounds. Her husband is addicted to drugs and gambling. Her children beg at the entrance of the cemetery for food and money.
One day, when Shafiga’s husband tried to sell the last tools of their house in order to gamble or buy drugs, she resisted. In response, he locked her in a dark, filthy room without any windows in the very corner of the cemetery. Her children begged at the cemetery door, and put water and food in a bottle and pushed it through a hole in the metal door so that their mother could survive.
After four months, her husband was arrested for gambling and sent to prison for six months. One month later, in August 2010, her 13-year-old child went to the prison to take the key from his father so he could release his mother, but the father would not agree.
While they were negotiating, the father slapped the child, drawing the attention of the police. The child told the anecdote to the police. The police, along with government agents, went and released Shafiga.
Shafiga emerged from the room. She was weak, yellow and had fungus between her fingers. Her skin fell off when anyone touched her.
She was immediately taken to the hospital, where her skin and injuries eventually healed. Her husband’s jail sentence was extended to three years.
The highest incidences of domestic violence take place in the southern and eastern border provinces, where Marzia and Shafiga live, according to Nijhowne and Oates. This is because of the greater level of armed forces in these regions, as well as the influence of the Taliban, which maintains an oppressive ideology toward women. The greater number of conflicts in the southern and eastern border provinces also adds to mental and physical disorders, which cause people to increasingly turn to violence to resolve disputes with family members, according to Nijhowne and Oates. Furthermore, the lack of security in these regions discourages international and nongovernmental organizations from operating there.
In these regions, there is also a scarcity of public services, such as schools, hospitals, courts and police forces, compared with the rest of the country, which means that people in this region have less opportunity to become aware of their rights. Lack of knowledge about Islam law, international law and Afghan law makes people consider violent acts, such as beating their wives or committing honor killings, as tradition, making violence continue to be acceptable to them.
There are many solutions to protect women from violence in Afghanistan. First, we can reduce violence by providing basic literacy trainings for both men and women as components of other activities. With a basic education, they can compete for better employment opportunities and generate better income.
Second, more opportunities should be created that enable women to challenge rigid gender roles by learning how Islam, Afghan law and international human rights law safeguard gender equality. Informing themselves about Islam and Afghan law is the most powerful weapon that women can attain to protect themselves. One of the best possible tools to spread this knowledge among women is the media.
Third, awareness should be raised about women’s own role in violence, highlighting women themselves as perpetrators of violence when they do not report crimes committed against them or resort to violence against themselves as a solution, such as through self-immolation.
Finally, youths play an important role for the future generation, so they should be trained and given more opportunities to learn more about issues and generate solutions to these issues to create a better future for their society.
Role models like Neekzad have started many programs that are inspiring and helpful to the women in Herat. For example, she runs a training course for violated and desperate women, especially those who have committed self-immolation and lost their physical beauty. In this course, she hires school girls to give the women a basic education in flower designing, tailoring and cooking in order to help them cultivate their inner beauty instead of focusing on the physical beauty that they have lost.
The key is to empower women. Recognizing domestic violence as a human rights violation empowers women by classifying them as rights’ bearers rather than victims. Therefore, by raising awareness about women’s rights in Islam, Afghan law and international law, and by helping injured women like Shafiga and Marzia, we can shape our society and world for the better and witness less violations and more empowered and happy lives in Afghanistan, as well as around the world.
For my sisters around the world, we can help empower each other in more ways than we think. For example, learning about the many cases of domestic violence in Afghanistan made me want to help! As I went through the cases and learned more, I felt compelled to help those women like Shafiga and Marzia, who are like butterflies in bottles, stuck in their lives and waiting for others to open the bottles’ caps and set them free. Let us be the ones to set them free.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.