ERBIL, Kurdistan – Kurdistan, the region occupied by Kurds and spread throughout Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, is home to some of the worst conditions for women. Specifically in Iraqi Kurdistan, there are many instances where women set themselves aflame purposefully as a form of suicide in order to escape the frequent occurrences of gender-based violence.
While there are supposedly laws that protect women from gender-based violence such as domestic abuse and honor killings, there are still consistent cases of attacks, which make human development within Iraqi Kurdistan impossible.
Ever since Kurds have gained sovereignty over areas of Iraq in a gruesome uprising in 1991, self-immolation has taken the lives of 10,000 women, some as young as 13 years old. The violent nature of self-burning raises the questions of why women choose this method and how horrible is life for Iraqi Kurdish women that it drives them to end their lives in this way.
A hospital in the town of Erbil reported caring for 150 women in 2011 that had set themselves on fire. The number of violent acts committed against women in general has also risen significantly. Self-immolation has actually started to be considered a form of violence against women, as other instances of oppressive and vicious behavior drive them to suicide. In 2012, the total amount of cases of violence against women reached about 3,000. These acts of violence ranged from self-immolation, murder, honor killings, beatings, sexual harassment and other forms of domestic violence.
Honor killing, which is also an alarming cause of death, is the murder of a woman by family members after the woman has brought shame to her family. While this practice may seem medieval, the number of cases has risen as well. From 1991 to 2007, there were 12,500 deaths caused by honor killings alone.
Government Action… or Inaction
This is not to say, however, that the Kurdistan Regional Government has not passed laws that intended on improving women’s rights. While there are some laws that do stand, they are simply not implemented. For this reason, cases of domestic violence and consequently self-burning, persist.
There have been requests to strengthen implementation, specifically by nongovernmental organizations that have pleaded with the government to develop special departments that exclusively handle domestic violence issues. No action has been taken, however, and another major issue is that there are only two clinics available to women in the whole Iraqi Kurdish region.
One of the primary causes for inaction taken by the government is that they do not recognize the urgency of gender-based violence due to the under-reporting of cases. The reason for underreporting is that many women do not seek help after experiencing domestic violence or sexual abuse. Women who survive self-immolation also often do not seek help because they feel they must keep it a secret for their safety and for the family’s name.
Because of this, women who do not die from self-immolation often attempt again within four days. Those that do seek medical attention often claim the burning was an accident that happened while using the stove. Police departments contain little documents on burning cases, and all are considered ‘closed,’ which stifles research on this epidemic and allows for it to continue.
Other Reasons for Self-Immolation
Self-immolation is not only committed as a form of suicide. There have been cases of self-burning committed as a political statement. These women choose to publicly sacrifice themselves in order to illustrate the extreme oppression of women. Recently on International Women’s Day, which occurred on March 8 this year, two Iraqi Kurdish women lit themselves on fire as a form of protest.
More often, however, women are resorting to self-immolation as a form of suicide, as they feel that they are trapped and must escape. Other reasons for feelings of entrapment besides domestic violence are betrothing at a young age, which leaves women in a marriage lacking love and security.
The economic situation in Iraqi Kurdistan may also be in part responsible for instability and rates of suicide. The Iraqi economy is suffering which directly affects Kurds that live there, particularly because rates of inflation have skyrocketed. The cost of living has risen considerably, which has left many women in poverty and in a vulnerable state with limited opportunities.
With women’s rights being repeatedly violated and poor economic conditions of Iraqi Kurdistan, rates of self-immolation do not seem to be subsiding. More attention needs to be directed at this horrible trend, and more government intervention is necessary to implement laws that protect women from gender-based violence. Until this happens, self-immolation will continue to occur and human progress will be stagnated.