By Namrata Hasija
“China is the only country where suicides among women outnumber men” -Yang Fude, Vice-president, Beijing Hui Guan Hospital
A study released on 9 September 2011, a day before the World Suicide Prevention Day, by the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention highlights the growing suicide rates in China. It states that around 300,000 people out of 1.3 billion population commit suicide every year, out of which 75 per cent are committed in rural areas and the number of women is 25 per cent higher than males in rural areas. This is in stark contrast to worldwide suicide statistics, where generally suicide rates are higher among the urban population and males. In Japan, 12.8 per cent women commit suicide compared to 35.6 per cent men. In Republic of Korea, men outnumber women again with 32.5 per cent men committing suicide against 15 per cent women.
According to Guangzhou Daily, the number of suicides has risen sharply in the reform era by almost 60 per cent. China is on par with Lithuania, Finland, Latvia, Hungary, Japan and Kazakhstan according to The Lancet. Such a phenomenon draws closer scrutiny in the backdrop of China’s spectacular growth, as the instances have been increasing especially after the introduction of reforms in China. This begs the question whether the economic boom along with the Chinese traditional societal pressure on women is triggering these suicides? Or is it because cases are now reported in the media which was not possible during Mao’s era?
According to a report published by the World Health Organization (WHO) every four minutes a woman commits suicide in China and majority of them belong to the rural areas. Every year, 1.5 million Chinese women attempt suicide while another 1,50,000 succeed in taking their own lives. The age profile of these women is usually 15-34 years of age and most of them try to commit suicide due to domestic conflicts according to the same report. Thus, it is very important to understand the changes in Chinese rural life after the liberalization of the economy in 1979.
With the de-collectivization of land a surplus of labour was generated in the rural areas which led to a large scale migration to urban areas in search of jobs, in turn leading to the feminization of agriculture. Adding to this, their already heavy domestic burden and the usually hostile environment of the groom’s family, which traditionally sees the wife as a “purchased commodity”, has led to an acute male-female imbalance. This has led to a range of problems for women compounded by isolation forming a lethal cocktail that many times culminates in suicide attempts over seemingly trivial issues. For example, it was reported recently that a woman tried to commit suicide when her husband refused to switch off the television when she wanted to sleep.
These bouts of depression are further aggravated by the traditional values of Chinese society where women are still treated as second citizens. A common saying among men highlights this, “marrying a woman is like buying a horse: I can ride you and beat you whenever I like”. Studies have also revealed that the easy availability of pesticides in rural households in China (most of which are banned in the west) – seem to offer an easy escape route to women suffering from the conditions described previously. In fact, some of these women interviewed by researchers and organizations did not want to die at all, but attempted suicide to improve their bargaining position at home through emotionally pressurizing them.
The ratio between attempted and successful suicides has however, decisively shifted towards the latter since rural areas do not have adequate medical facilities or trained doctors. Moreover doctors in China try to play down mental illness and chronic depression considering it a ‘western phenomenon’. As a result there are not enough psychiatrists to either diagnose or help these women overcome their problems at an early stage. Many support groups have mushroomed where the women can discuss problems, take up vocational courses or simply participate in cultural activities to break the monotony. Other groups seek to educate women on issues such as marriage laws, suicide prevention and gender awareness. However, due to societal conditioning the resistance to discussing family issues with outsiders is great and these attempts are at best a partial success.
Many studies indicate that a ban on lethal pesticides and increasing female migration to urban areas has reduced rural suicide rates among women, but banning pesticides seems to deal with the symptoms and not the problem at core. Fresh data released on 10 September 2011 by the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention clearly shows that the trend of high suicide rates and their correlation to the feminization of agriculture remains substantial.
Research Officer, CRP, IPCS
email: [email protected]