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OP-ED: Female Suicides in Nepal―and in the USA
Women’s suicides rates in Nepal are exceptionally high and continually increasing, reflecting a global epidemic. According to the International Association for Suicide Prevention, there is one death by suicide every 40 seconds globally. The number of successful suicides annually exceeds the number of deaths due to homicide and war combined. Globally, male suicide rates are higher, making Nepal a unique case.
Data on suicide in Nepal is sparse, oppositional, and contradicting. Police data, nongovernmental studies, and governmental studies show different figures and factors for suicide. Most research done on the subject has been conducted recently, in the last five to 10 years. National Nepali literature suggests a woman’s vulnerability to suicidal behavior include societal and cultural factors such as patriarchy, domestic violence, and depression. Yet, this research is limited especially in a country where only 1 percent of the national health care budget is dedicated to mental health.
In Nepal, suicide is a crime and stigmatized socially. Many suicides are reported as accidents due to the family’s fear of stigma―if they are reported at all. One study estimates that only 10 percent of all suicide cases are reported to the police.
As a Master’s Candidate at SIT Graduate Institute, I conducted research in the areas of women’s mental health, suicide, stigma, and cultural practices, asking: What are the causes of suicidal behavior among young, married women in Nepal? My study sought and examined the risk factors that increase suicidal behavior among young, married Nepali women between the ages of 15-35.
My results showed forms of violence and women’s low status, followed by modernization, were the top three factors associated with female suicides. The results suggest that deeper contextual issues lead to a situation where women encounter domestic violence, high pregnancy rates, early marriage, and other hardships. These are exacerbated by the cultural belief that women should not express themselves, rather that they should adhere to a “culture of silence.” It is these deeper, hidden factors that shape the way that women are valued and treated, and how they perceive and value themselves. All these hardships manifest in depression, hopelessness, and a general apathy for continued life.
In the U.S. as well, the tide of suicide rates are increasing. In a May 22, 2013 article for the Daily Beast, Tony Dokoupll writes, “Every year since 1999, more Americans have killed themselves than the year before, making suicide the nation’s greatest untamed cause of death.” Tara Parker-Pope of The New York Times recently wrote an article about the increasing rates of suicide among the Baby Boomer generation. For women in both the U.S. and Nepal, self-harm is an increasing health concern. Women in high income countries, such as the U.S., who are in their 30s, suffer from suicide as the leading cause of death. For women older than 40, suicide trails only to breast cancer.
Similar difficulties in suicide research and in constructing effective solutions to the problem are seen in both Nepal and U.S. cases. For instance, in the U.S. it is estimated that numbers are too low and cases are underreported due to stigma and other factors. There are even similarities in the methods chosen―poisonings and hangings are significant in both countries.
Nepal is a “post-conflict” country, having experienced the People’s War from 1996-2006. The country is still in shambles with no constitution or effective governance. Similarly, American citizens have been witness to over a decade of violent conflict abroad, as well as domestic violence at home. There is an identifiable need to need to confront trauma and support the healing process in post-conflict societies, while the psychological and health repercussions of conflict are often overlooked in peacebuilding phases.
Psychiatrists and psychologists coincide in emphasizing the intergenerational effects of trauma―“transgenerational trauma”―wherein individuals cannot cope with their past trauma and therefore pass it on to the next generation. If the risk factors for suicide are not identified and coping skills remain underdeveloped, then these high female suicide rates may continue in future generations. For the well-being of women―and men―around the world, we must begin a conversation about the stigmatized subject of suicide and cultivate an environment where discussion is held and solutions may be found.
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Kirra Hughes, writing for PeaceVoice, holds a Masters Degree in Conflict Transformation from SIT Graduate Institute, has worked in such areas as traditional medicine in Tibet, women’s movement in Nepal, peacebuilding in Southeast Asia, and environmental education in the US, and can be reached at KirraLHughes@gmail.com. This column submitted by Tom H. Hastings, Ed.D., Director, PeaceVoice Program, Oregon Peace Institutehttp://www.peacevoice.info/