More Afghan women are choosing suicide to escape the violence and brutality of their daily lives, says a new human-rights report prepared by Canada's Foreign Affairs Department.
The 2008 annual assessment paints a grim picture of a country where violence against women and girls is common, despite rising public awareness among Afghans and international condemnation.
"Self-immolation is being used by increasing numbers of Afghan women to escape their dire circumstances, and women constitute the majority of Afghan suicides," said the report, completed in November 2009.
The document was obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
The director of a burn unit at a hospital in the relatively peaceful province of Herat reported that in 2008 more than 80 women tried to kill themselves by setting themselves on fire, many of them in their early 20s.
Many of those women died, the report said.
The frank evaluation of the plight of women was written against the backdrop of international debate last year over the Afghanistan government's so-called rape law.
The legislation, aimed at courting votes in the minority Shiite community, legalized rape within a marriage. It prompted outrage in Canada and many other countries.
The move was an attempt to codify social and religious practises, but the international condemnation forced the government to review the law. It was eventually enacted with some amendments, although the basic tenets remained unchanged.
"Rape is widely believed to be a frequent occurrence, though its true extent is concealed by under-reporting owing to the social stigma attached to it," says the 31-page, partly censored document.
The Afghan practice of "honour killings" has been cited as a major problem by both the Canadian Foreign Affairs Department and the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said it has "recorded 76 cases of honour killings in 2008, but the actual number is believed by local embassies and NGOs [non-governmental organizations]to be much higher."
A Calgary-based group, Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, said Ottawa needs to put more emphasis on the issue as the country approaches the 2011 deadline for the withdrawal of troops.
"Human rights are human rights for a reason. They belong to everyone and they shouldn't be denied to half of the population," said Penny Christensen, the organization's treasurer.
"As Canadians we have a moral and ethical responsibility to support the women of Afghanistan."
She credited the Canadian government for placing special emphasis on improving the lives of women with a series of programs, but said it needs to further encourage the development of Afghan civil society.
The fact the Afghan constitution mandates the participation of women in the country's parliament should be taken as a sign that the situation is not hopeless, Ms. Christensen said.
A British study, cited in the Foreign Affairs report, said 87 per cent of Afghan women complained that they were the victims of violence, half of it sexual.
"The report added that 60 per cent of marriages are forced, and 57 per cent of marriages involve girls under the age of 16. Due to both social norms and lack of access to justice, women rarely report widespread abuse against them, particularly rape or sexual abuse."
And there are few places victims can go to escape abuse.
"Some women escaping from domestic violence can only find shelter in prisons, although the creation of women's shelters in some parts of the country now provides an alternative."
There are only 19 women's shelters in Afghanistan.
The Afghan government has sometimes been ambivalent about domestic violence, on the one hand condemning sexual abuse, particularly rape, but then backtracking in some high-profile cases.
President Hamid Karzai personally condemned the August 2008 rape of a 12-year-old girl in Sari Pul province, saying rapists should "face the country's most severe punishment."
But in a separate case he pardoned two men convicted of gang-raping a woman in Samangan province.
The Afghan government has created special police task forces staffed by female officers to investigate family violence and crimes against children.
But the report notes those female officers often complain they're not allowed to do outreach and must wait for victims to show up at the police station.