Mon, Aug 27, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Number of suicides by women rises in Kurdish-controlled Iraq

AFP , SULAIMANIYAH, IRAQ

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 downcast, 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 themselves on fire.

Suicide is a stigma in conservative Muslim societies such as that in rural Kurdistan, where men take second wives and poor, uneducated women in particular are second class citizens under their husband's thumb.

Few admit to self-harm and explain their horrendous burns, from which most never recover, as 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," 42-year-old Aso Kamal said.

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

Around 350 died in the first seven months of this year, he said.

"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 said.

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

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 said.

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

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.

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