The Scourge of Suicide Among Third World Women

Much has been made of China’s vaunted economic revolution and its inevitable impact on global trade, politics, and the environment, but the collision of Western-style development and traditional culture may be creating a more immediate–and troubling–issue: Chinese women are killing themselves at an alarming rate.

A quarter of the world’s women live in China, but, according to Women’s International Network News (Spring 1999), the country is home to more than half the world’s female suicides–about 500 a day. Indeed, World Bank researchers found that China’s female suicide rate is nearly five times the global average. It is the only country where female suicide victims outnumber male suicides.

The phenomenon is especially common among young, rural Chinese women. (Three times as many suicides take place in the countryside as in the cities.) The continuing low status of rural women has collided with the nation’s growing market economy, writes Veronica Pearson in Jane (June/July 1999). Although the communist government 50 years ago granted women equal access to divorce, education, and jobs, those rights–along with the majority of moneymaking opportunities–are found primarily in China’s major cities.

And thanks to television, rural women now know their urban counterparts have more money and freedom, while their own lives aren’t significantly different from those of their great-grandmothers. Arranged marriages are still common, sons are still treated like “little emperors,” and daughters–if they aren’t aborted or abandoned–are rarely educated. Once they’re married, young brides are at the mercy of their husbands’ families, particularly their mothers-in-law, whom they are expected to wait on like servants. Young women begin to command respect, says Pearson, only when they have produced male heirs.

These aren’t depressed or mentally ill women, either. WIN notes that early results from a study being conducted by a Canadian psychiatrist suggest that most of these suicides are impulsive acts–often precipitated by a family quarrel–committed by otherwise sound women.

Social workers and doctors are working together to devise suicide prevention strategies–including family counseling and emergency hot lines–in some of China’s larger cities. But these services aren’t available in rural areas. “It’s an uphill fight in a country where one suicide conference was abruptly canceled last year and mainstream newspapers have not even mentioned the topic,” WIN reports.

Although suicide is viewed in the West as an act of weakness, in China it can be considered, as Pearson puts it, “a demonstration of strength and conviction . . . a time-honored resort of women who have been maligned, dishonored, shamed, or wronged.”

The same is true in Pakistan, where female suicide also is a growing problem. Here, too, the standard victim is a young woman living in the countryside, although in Pakistan, reports Child Newsline (June 3, 1999), the suicides more commonly precede arranged marriages. In the southeastern Pakistan province of Sindh alone, 60 to 100 girls and women kill themselves each month.

Female suicides are also up in Afghanistan, where women’s lives have dramatically worsened since the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban took control of the government three years ago and forbade women to work. An anonymous doctor who spoke to Julian West of the International News Electronic Telegraph (May 17, 1998) confirmed that women’s suicides had risen significantly.

Besides the social and cultural problems created by the Taliban’s oppression of women, the regime has also created serious economic problems for the many Afghan families who once depended on women’s incomes. In the capital city of Kabul alone, roughly 40,000 female civil servants lost their jobs. The number of street kids has doubled in the past few years as well, to an estimated 50,000 today. One psychiatrist told West that poverty was leading many Afghan women to commit suicide: “They have no bread, no food, nothing.”

But in these and other countries ruled by fundamentalist Muslim governments, women don’t have to kill themselves to get out of a tight spot–their male relatives will do it for them. Child Newsline reported an incident in which a man killed his sister with an ax when she refused to accept an arranged marriage, and The New York Times (June 20, 1999) detailed the prevalence of “honor killings” of unchaste women in the Arab world. Sometimes a rumor alone is enough to cost a family its honor; the only way to restore it is for a male relative to kill the offending female. “We do not consider this murder,” a 22-year-old Jordanian man who killed his sister last year told The New York Times. “It was like cutting off a finger.”

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