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Afghan women's lives on the line in struggle for equality

Story Highlights

• Activist says many Afghan men make women feel they're "not real"
• Officials say 80 percent of nation's burn victims are women
• Official: Frustration, poverty, war contribute to suicides
• Some don't send children to school due to security situation in Afghanistan
From Nic Robertson and Sarah Sultoon
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KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Bibi Kuku, a 19-year-old Afghan woman, wanted to die. Forced to marry and soon pregnant, she set herself on fire in an extreme act of self-harm, she told the nurses who treated her.

She denies that happened now, saying the burns on her belly came from an accident with an oil lamp. Kuku and her baby survived, but her scars will always remain.

Human rights activists and officials say Kuku's case is not uncommon in Afghanistan. Although strides have been made for women's rights in the post-Taliban era, many women are still made to feel like second-class citizens. (Watch the brutal reality of life for Afghan women Video)

Afghan laws stipulate that men and women have equal rights, these experts say, but they are just not recognized.

"There is a thinking of men in my country that women are not real, not complete humans," said Homa Sultani, an Afghan woman and human rights activist.

"That is why they think that if they are not complete humans, then they do not have the right to go to the doctor or the other rights, to get education."

The culture allows Afghan men to go even further, she said.

"Men think that they have the right to kill their wives because they think that when they get married, their wives, or maybe their daughters, [become] their private property and ... you can do anything -- you can throw them away, you can demolish them."

Suicides on the rise

But sometimes, it is the women themselves who throw their lives away.

Officials at the hospital where Kuku was being treated say 80 percent of their burn victims are women -- about one-third of them self-inflicted injuries. Doctors say many of those are women who set themselves on fire in suicide attempts. It's a trend, they say, that's on the rise.

Post-Taliban Afghanistan does now recognize the rights of women, although Mazari Safra, the nation's deputy minister for women, admits there are still social barriers women need to break through.

But she says progress made since the fall of the Taliban and their strict Islamic law may actually be driving increasing numbers of women to try to kill themselves.

"There are three main causes behind these suicides: first is the awareness -- when their awareness increases they become aware they have very limited resources, their frustration increases and they commit suicide," she said.

"Second is economic poverty. Poverty plays an important role," she continued.

"The third reason is the psychological effects of war ... the people get impatient."

Age-old traditions difficult to overcome

Female activist Sultani says problems go back to years of war and occupation that preceded the rule of the Taliban, which was toppled in October 2001 during the post-9/11 U.S.-led invasion.

Under the Taliban, women were forced to wear burqas covering them from head to toe, and girls were not allowed to attend school. (Watch beating the Taliban through schools Video)

Sultani says women were "zero" under the Taliban.

"Now they can go to schools, they can go to work, they can do any social activity, they can work. For example, I can work here, I am not forced to wear burqa and these things," she said.

"This is a change, but you cannot say that this is a big change in [comparison] with life of women before Taliban."

Most Afghan women are illiterate, she says, so her organization develops videos to inform women of their human and civil rights.

The age-old traditions hamper many things -- husbands do not like their wives or daughters to be seen by male doctors, and many women still die in childbirth -- but the present-day security situation can be just as damaging, with fear of attacks keeping women at home.

"The main reason now most of the people do not let their girls go to schools is the bad security situation," Sultani said.

Crimes against women -- at home or outside -- are at least investigated now. Pashtoon Stanakzai, one of two female officers at a police station in Kabul, said many women do not understand their rights, but she tries to help.

"When they come here, they cry and they are very panicked," she said. "First I calm them down, and after that I find out what was the reason and who was blamed.

"If the lady is blamed, then I advise her. And if someone else is blamed, then in the course of the investigation, I ask the doer of that action to show up and [I] investigate."


Bibi Kuku, with her stomach burns fully exposed, lies on a hospital bed in Afghanistan.



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