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Fueled by Abuse: Self-Immolation and Family Violence in Central Asia


“I did not know how to end the misery of torture and daily beatings I got from my cruel husband. So I poured petrol on myself and set myself ablaze.”

-- Jamila, 18 year old survivor recovering from her burns in a Kabul hospital


The Extent of the Problem

Increasing numbers of women in Central Asia are committing suicide by self-immolation. It is a trend that seems to be increasing in frequency throughout Central Asia[1][1], but is particularly acute in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.[2][2]


There are no reliable statistics on the actual number of women who take their own lives by burning themselves to death. Most douse themselves with gasoline or kerosene and then set themselves alight, usually at home. Limited data in Tajikistan indicate that in 2002, 33 women attempted to burn themselves to death, while during the first six months of 2003 that number tripled to 90 cases.[3][3]


In one northern province—Sughd Oblast—113 women resorted to self-immolation by the end of 2003, compared to 115 cases during the previous two years, a doubling of the number of women opting for this gruesome and painful form of suicide.[4][4]


These figures are considered gross under estimates because authorities and families in mostly rural areas tend cover up suicides and police list them as accidents.[5][5] By some estimates, at least 30 women attempt to end their lives by self-immolation every month in Tajikistan alone.[6][6]


In neighbouring Afghanistan, 36 women burned themselves to death in Kabul in 2006, compared to 18 cases in 2005. But in the Taliban-held areas in the southwest, that figure is believed to be much higher. In Kandahar, 100 women tried to kill themselves through self-immolation or by swallowing rat poison in 2006. Data for the country as a whole are not available.[7][7]


Uzbekistan records upwards of 50 cases of self-immolation a year in the traditional Ferghana Valley alone. But again, nationwide data are not available.[8][8]


Underlying Causes Largely Ignored

Researchers documenting the incidence of self-immolation in Central Asia conclude that most women who resort to this form of suicide are escaping forced marriages and systematic abuse at the hands of their husbands or in-laws.


Gender-based violence is widespread in Central Asia. In many rural areas, wife beating is a generally accepted practice and police do not respond to what they consider to be ‘family matters’.[9][9]


Upwards of two thirds of the women who try to self-immolate are under the age of 30. Of those who survive, the majority claimed they were trying to end a life of misery, made worse by a forced marriage to a violent spouse or the brutality of their in-laws.


This was the reason given by Marhabo Tangerova, a young Uzbek woman forced to marry a man she did not know or love at the age of 17. After he began to beat her, the rest of his family joined in. Explained Ms. Tangerova, “At that time, at that moment, there was no other way. They didn’t just criticize me, they would beat me—even my sister-in-law would hit me with a bottle.”[10][10]


An Uzbek legal expert claims that most of the female suicides he investigates are due to family violence and despair, while men usually kill themselves for economic reasons.[11][11]


Up to 80 per cent of the cases of self-immolation in Afghanistan are a result of forced marriages and systematic abuse in the home.[12][12] Because domestic violence is endemic throughout the region, self-immolations will likely continue to rise, particularly in strife torn areas, where women and girls have few opportunities to improve their lives.


UNFPA in Central Asia

UNFPA is working throughout Central Asia to improve the rights of women and adolescent girls by providing education and access to comprehensive reproductive health information and services. The Fund is also working with its partner organizations— government agencies and national and local NGOs—to end violence against women and promote their health and rights.



Combating suicide through self-immolation requires a comprehensive approach to underlying causes. These include domestic violence, which also encompasses sexual and psychological abuse. In Central Asia, women have little access to counseling, domestic abuse shelters or other forms of psychosocial support. Most of the services available are provided by NGOs.



What is Needed:

·        Governments should recognize the problem, and begin to design strategies to address it.

·        Police and hospital staff need to be educated about self-immolation and report cases to national health authorities.

·        Government agencies, working together with national and local NGOs, need to reduce gender-based violence in the home and promote the rights of women.

·         Crisis centres need to have the capacity to rehabilitate women who have tried and failed to kill themselves and help them to rebuild their lives.



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[1][1] Central Eurasian Studies Society, “Phenomenon of Self Immolation in Central Asia,” Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS),  2002.

[2][2] A. Kueppers, “Eurasia Insight: NGO Helps Turn Around Lives of Suicidal Women in Uzbekistan,” May 28, 2003, accessed on Eurasianet.org.

[3][3] Central Asia Caucasus Institute, “Number of Self Immolations Growing in Tajikistan,” Analyst, October 22, 2003, p. 15.

[4][4] Ibid.

[5][5] N. Zokirova, “Tajikistan in Denial over Spiraling Suicide Rate,” Institute for War and Peace Reporting, London, 18 July 2003.

[6][6] J. Falkingham, Women and Gender Relations in Tajikistan, April 2000, p. 23.

[7][7] IRIN,”Afkghanistan: Desparate Women Choose Suicide,” Reuters AlertNet, 29 November, 2006.

[8][8] Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, Domestic Violence in Uzbekistan, December 2000, p. 26.

[9][9] A. Tabyshalieva, Promoting Human Security: Ethical, Normative and Educational Frameworks in Central Asia, UNESCO, Paris, 2006, p. 75.

[10][10] Op. cit. 2.

[11][11] Op. cit. 7.

[12][12] Op. cit. 6.