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Date: Fri, 25 Sep 98 13:20:14 CDT
From: rich@pencil.math.missouri.edu (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: CHINA: Women Suicides Reflect Drudgery of Rural Life
Article: 43919
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.15775.19980926181601@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

/** ips.english: 503.0 **/
** Topic: POPULATION-CHINA: Women Suicides Reflect Drudgery of Rural Life **
** Written 3:34 PM Sep 24, 1998 by newsdesk in cdp:ips.english **

Women Suicides Reflect Drudgery of Rural Life

By Antoaneta Bezlova, IPS, 21 September 1998

BEIJING, Sep 21 (IPS) - Few were ready to take in the real magnitude of the problem when news emerged, years ago, that young women from China's countryside were taking their lives in shockingly large numbers and with staggering ease.

It was, and still is, an unpleasant piece of news: The suicide rate in China is up to three times that of many western industrialised countries.

It is the only country where more women kill themselves than men. And perhaps most disturbing of all, more than half of those who take their own lives each year are young rural women.

When these trends surfaced, they were too sensitive an issue for Chinese psychiatrists, harking back to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when colleagues were denounced publicly for practising Western psychological concepts.

Government officials were either unaware of the enormity of the problem or unwilling to admit it because it shed light on the backwardness and poverty of China's rural life.

So the publication in 1996 of the findings of a survey of global health trends, conducted by epidemiologists and health researchers at the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Harvard University, created nothing less than a sensation.

More than 2 million people are believed to have committed suicide in China since 1990 -- a staggering number of 324,711 people a year. China's suicide rate is estimated to be triple that of countries like Britain, the United States and Australia.

China also accounted for 40 percent of suicides worldwide in 1990, the latest period for which global data are available.

In March, Beijing initiated a five-year study into the causes of suicide in 24 communities around the country, in what experts hope will allow a deeper, more frank look into this disturbing phenomenon.

But beyond sheer numbers, suicides in this country have shattered some social theories applicable to Western countries.

While more women than men commit suicides in China, in the West male suicides outnumber females by three to one. Among women aged 15 to 44 in China, as many as one in four deaths are suicides, compared with one in 10 among women of the same age group in the West.

And while in the industrialised West, suicide is associated with alienation caused by urban life, rural suicides in China are estimated to be three times higher than urban ones.

But to many, the most worrisome fact is the estimate that more than a half of people who kill themselves in China every year are young rural women.

If the international standards which put the ratio between attempted suicides and completed suicides at 20 to one are applied to China, an appalling picture emerges: Every year some 3.4 million countryside women try to take their lives.

Why do they choose to die instead of live? asked Xie Lihua, a woman activist and editor of 'Rural Women Knowing All', the first Chinese magazine devoted to rural women's problems.

Many point out that women in the countryside bear the brunt of the economic reforms -- they do 70 percent of work in the fields while their husbands leave to look for work in the cities. But I think this is only one side of the problem and the most superficial one.

Xie believes the economic reforms which late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping introduced two decades ago can hardly be blamed solely for the problem. She points to China's long feudal history and Confucian tradition which have combined to diminish the place of women in society, while holding men in high esteem.

There is also the clash between the traditional mentality in the countryside and the new modern thinking which came from the cities, and the growing gap of wealth between the rural and urban areas, she explained.

But none of these seem to clearly explain why Shen Guiliang, a placid, 25-year-old woman from Lijiaying village, drank a bottle of pesticide to end to her life because she had been humiliated by her sister-in-law.

Shen left behind a loving husband and a one-year-old child. So harsh for Shen were her sister-in-law's ugly words and so limited were her means to assert herself that she chose suicide.

Shen's case and many others that Xie collected through letters from readers point to two unconfirmed but emerging explanations

for the pattern of rural women's suicide in China. They suggest how little appreciation rural women have for their lives, and how suicide appears somewhat to be more acceptable to society.

Although suicide is not seen as a positive thing here, it is regarded a almost understandable whenever it concerns people who have some constraints to express themselves or don't have any other choice to make a strong statement, said Michael Phillips, a Canadian psychiatrist and epidemiologist at the Beijing Huilongguan hospital.

Phillips, along with Yang Gonghuan, an epidemiologist at the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, head the team conducting the five-year study into China's suicides.

If history could be summoned as a judge, many dynastic records in China have a fair number of honourable suicides.

There is Qu Yuan, a famous poet and distinguished official from the state of Chu in the era of Warring States (475-221 B.C.), who drowned himself in the Luo River to persuade his king about the right way to defend their besieged state from enemies.

Also, there are numerous accounts of virtuous women who chose to follow their deceased husbands into death.

In the West a great number of people who commit suicide re said to suffer from mental disorder or severe depression, but Phillips believes this is not exactly the case with China.

We need to research more cases to confirm it but I tend to believe that at least one-third of the women who commit suicide here, do it in absence of mental illness, he contended.

For many of them, it is a way to cope with stress, Phillips continued. Many of them also think of suicide as a louder voice to say something.

Phillips hopes to find more answers in the course of the Chinese government-supported study now underway. But despite this, others say the problem of suicide in China has not yet received the serious recognition it deserves.

The government tends to see other things such as poverty alleviation, elimination of illiteracy as more serious issues to be tackled head on, said an official with a foreign aid organisation here.

She added: They (Chinese authorities) don't take the high suicide rate of rural women as something that needs imminent action, and as our agenda is being decided together with them, we don't work on it either.