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Female suicides 'linked to status'

13th January 2009

The high proportion of rural Chinese women who commit suicide is directly linked to the social pressures of the day, including economic woes, the country's draconian family planning policy, and marital tension, experts say.

chinese sad

"There are around 2 million attempted suicides by Chinese women every year, with the most common reason being long-term financial problems," Xu Rong, project director at the Beijing Rural Women's Education and Development Center, said.

"A lot of suicides take place as the result of sudden conflicts. Then there's another kind, which has to do with the system of marriage we have in China, where the women goes to live with her husband's family," said Xu, who is directly involved in suicide prevention work.

"Since the move [in 1979] from collective production to household responsibility for farmland," Xu said, "rural women have no one to tell their troubles to when they run into problems."

Suicide is the leading cause of death for Chinese women, and China is the only country in which the suicide rate for females is higher than that for males.

A report in the official Beijing Daily News cited a recent symposium at Qinghua University on the problem.

Impulsive acts

Experts told the meeting that around 150,000 Chinese women take their own lives annually across China, while at least 1 million attempt it.

According to Qinghua sociology professor Jing Jun, the suicide rate in China's countryside is three times higher than in big cities, while the suicide rate among women in China is 25% higher than the male suicide rate. Suicide is the leading cause of death for the 15-34 age group.

Xu Rong said that around 70% of suicides triggered by marital conflicts were committed on impulse.

Meanwhile, Jing said many survivors of suicide attempts whom he has interviewed didn't want to die but had acted in a moment of passion.

Around 90% of suicides and attempted suicides in western countries involve some kind of mental health problem, while in China, only 60% do.

Liao Tianqi, deputy publisher of the US-based Chinese-language online magazine Observe China, said growing social problems were putting an additional mental strain on women.

Social status

"You can piece together the whole picture a bit like a jigsaw from these figures," Liao said. "You can see the social structures in the background of the suicides of rural women."

"One of these is the one-child family planning policy. Another is the fact that a lot of women and children are trafficked in China nowadays. Rural women enjoy no independent status, no independent personality, so we can see that the pressure on Chinese women is extraordinarily great," she said.

Experts say the high suicide rate is also strongly linked to the easy availability of means to kill oneself.

Firearms are easy to come by and are one of the most common methods.

In the countryside, 62% of female suicides are completed through swallowing pesticides or rat poison, and 75% of those involve the use of pesticides already in the woman's home.

Experts are calling for stricter controls on the sale and distribution of pesticides.

Liao said changes in policy resulting from such research were crucial if further tragedies were to be avoided.

"Firstly, we have to gain a thorough understanding of the social factors in the background of these suicides. Secondly, government social policy must see real changes as a result," she said.

Call for focus

"For example, Chinese women don't get enough legal protection when it comes to population policy and family planning. I think this really is extremely important."

Xu said her center was still struggling to focus minds on the issue.

"The impact has still been very weak," she said. "I hope that all NGOs, and government departments concerned with social policy, can make mental health education a cornerstone of their work. That would be very effective in preventing more suicides."

As the population continues to rise, suicides of Chinese women now make up around half the world total of female suicides.

A high proportion of these suicides occurs among young women, in the 16-26 age range.

Depression ranks fourth worldwide as a major illness affecting people's productivity in daily life.

In the absence of widely available and affordable mental health care, patients with depression can also become a heavy burden on their families, and the disorder is one of the main factors behind suicide.

Original reporting in Mandarin by He Ping. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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