Published: June 2011
The Moment  Stephanie Sinclair
After Flames A veil of gauze protects a patient named Zahara from flies in a burn ward in Herat, Afghanistan. Afghan women who set themselves on fire may do so to escape abuse at home, believing they will die instantly. Yet many linger on with terrible injuries. Photographer Stephanie Sinclair first covered the issue of self-immolation by Afghan women in 2003. That led to an eight-year project on child marriage. She says, “I needed to start researching what would be so bad in these women’s lives that they would take this drastic measure.” —Whitney Hall

Behind the Lens

Did this woman, Zahara, burn herself?

The placement of her wounds suggests that she set herself on fire, but at the time of my visit she denied it. Denial is common at the hospital because patients are often afraid they will receive lesser care for self-inflicted wounds. The act of self-immolation brings shame upon the family, which is another reason women deny what is in many cases a failed suicide attempt.

How are child marriage and self-immolation connected?

More than half the women I met in the burn ward were married very young: 9, 10, or 11. It was clear they were miserable. Many of them had suffered long periods of mental trauma during their early marriages. Then they heard other women had set themselves on fire, and they saw it as a way out, or even what I see as a cry for help. Because they haven’t been educated, they don’t realize the consequences of living through the burns, of living with disfigurement. Girls are often pulled out of school as soon as they’re engaged. Keeping them in school works against both child marriage and self-immolation.