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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Freedom, Chinese Women and Suicide

The Great Wall of China. Photo Credit

The press and the major network news have been carrying stories recently about the high index of suicide in Chinese women, particularly rural Chinese women.
According to an article in the Washington Post on May 15, 2007, “the suicide rate for women in China is 25 percent higher than for men, and the rural rate is three times the urban rate. In Western countries, men are at least twice as likely and sometimes four times as likely as women to commit suicide, studies show. But in China, being young, from the countryside and female is an especially lethal combination.

Because the women who commit suicide are almost exclusively poor, their desperation is a reminder of the social inequalities that plague China and the difficulties hindering government efforts to raise rural standards of living. Despite the fast-paced modernization of cities, women in the countryside have been left to face what they consider insurmountable obstacles, often stemming from the traditional view that wives play a subservient role in the household.

"They're unprepared for the great shock of the life, such as family conflict and the fast-changing social environment," said Xiao Jing, a researcher with a group in Hunan province that works to prevent suicide among young rural women. "Most women who commit suicide have a poor education, earn very little and are strongly influenced by traditional thoughts of the old China."

Overall, the suicide rate in China is comparatively high. An estimated 287,000 Chinese kill themselves each year, a rate of 23 people per 100,000, more than double the U.S. rate, according to a study by the Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Center, part of Huilongguan Hospital in the capital. The rate has remained relatively stable for years, but researchers say they are now seeing more impulsive cases, like Zhao's, as well as cases in which increasingly younger women are attempting suicide.

In its 2002 study, the suicide prevention center found that young women who had attempted to kill themselves had on average only five years of schooling and lived in households with a median per-capita income of only $13 a month, lower than the national average. Most reported being unhappily married, more than 42 percent mentioned financial problems, and more than 38 percent said their husbands had beaten them. "The most outstanding factor is the predominance of family conflict as a cause of attempted suicide," the study said.

"Before, it was 30- to 50-year-olds. Now it's 15 to 34," said Xu Rong, project officer with a Beijing nonprofit group that assists rural women. "Whenever their dreams and reality don't match, if they can't solve their problems, they attempt suicide."

How easy for us to think that the disparity between China and the West with regard to suicide rates boils down to contrasting conditions, to academic and socio-economic factors, all quantifiable, all understandable, all reassuring. Thank God it's not like that here...

But let's look at it more closely. Is it not true that democracy allows those of us privileged to have been born in the west, in first world economies, in particular after WWII, to have freedom of thought? To have lived all our lives in countries that allow us access to psychological and academic and professional mechanisms to walk in new directions, and to think out of the box, when "dreams and reality don't match". To have the freedom, not only societal, but also practical, to follow our bliss, as Joseph Campbell would have put it.

How much is that worth? How rich are we? How lucky are we? Let us not become complacent. Let us not forget.

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