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The Two Chinas
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The Tragedy Amongst Rural Chinese Women

Feb. 12, 2009
N. Lukanovich

There appear to be a lot of myths about suicide that have been milling about for years and years. One of them is that Japan has the highest rate and people in Scandinavia are so depressed by the black winters that they off themselves in droves. Neither is true. Who is the winner? Lithuania. I know…who would've thought? Next is Belarus, and then Russia. Men find a way to opt out of the treadmill called life about 6 times more often in these countries, their methods not leaving room for resuce. 81 people out of 100,000 people in Lithuania are unable to endure their despair. What people in the world are the least likely to take the plunge? If you live in St. Kitts, Jordan, Haiti, Honduras or Antigua, chances are you'll endure whatever hardships life tosses at your feet. The stats for these countries are 0.0, which means that less than 1 in 1,000,000 people take their own lives.

There have been sensational reports about China's suicide rate, but China is not high on the list. What makes China special is that it is the only nation other than Afghanistan to have a higher rate of suicide for women than men, and these are mostly rural women. Some claim that this is simply because rural women in China are more determined to make it stick, or because the preferred method is pesticide and it's difficult to treat the effects of the poison quickly enough when there are no hospitals close by. But 1,500,000 women in China attempt suicide every year compared to 150,000 that 'succeed', so the use of pesticides may explain part of the phenomenon, but there are evidently other factors involved.

Some have postulated that the reforms since the l980's and the breakdown of tradition are causing a mental health epidemic. Students are under too much pressure to succeed and find college level jobs. The lust for material success has driven people mad. But the overall suicide statistics in China are lower than in many other nations, and the ratio is 3-4 times higher in rural areas than in the cities, whereas in most nations the opposite it true. Clearly the problem is not in the urban areas where tradition has broken down.

Others speculate that Chinese culture is partly to blame, that the taboo against suicide is not as strong as in many other cultures. The proponents of this thesis point to the stories in Chinese history of those who killed themselves for the honour of their family, their own glory, to prove their honesty, or for true love. One's reputation, in Chinese culture, has often been more important than one's life. For a rural woman to be a 'good' woman, she must be a virgin before marriage, never seen alone with a man other than her husband, never remarry if she is widowed. But this doesn't explain the increase in suicide rates amongst rural women.

Women have gained more rights and freedoms in many parts of the world, and in urban centers of China itself; this new reality may be making it more difficult for women in regions where they are denied freedoms and individual rights, but are aware that other women have rights. If you believe that all women are treated like chattel than you are likely to accept your circumstance, believing it to be the norm. The phrase 'the two Chinas' is used in regard to mainland China and Taiwan, but there are also two Chinas within mainland China, the urban China and the rural China.

There have been reports of women who tried to kill themselves when they lived in the country, but then later, even after they'd managed to find jobs in the city, tried again. When one woman was asked why she still wanted to kill herself even though she had finally got away from the countryside, she responded that it was too painful to live with the knowledge that she had to give away her baby girl when girls in the city don't, that she didn't receive an education, that she had limited choices compared to girls in the city, and doesn't understand her cruel fate.

The Communist Party of China promotes gender equality, but change is clearly coming too slowly for women in rural areas. While the preference for boys in urban China is gradually diminishing, in rural China a boy is a must. The one child policy has created horrendous problems of infanticide, selective abortion, and the abandonment of girls, even though rural families are allowed two children if they have a girl first. (For more on this topic see China - A New Twist on Pro-Choice).

Women in rural areas normally marry at the age of 18; they are expected to care for the old, care for the sick, care for the young, but on top of this, work in the fields. They work, in essence, non-stop. They are considered to be the property of fathers, or brothers, or husbands - or the husband's family. Those who do not have options, or feel they have no options, those who lose hope completely for a way out of their predicament chose death over life.

Rural women who have not been taught to read or write are killing themselves, not because of the pressure of not getting a college level job, not because of ancient Chinese stories of honour and death, or a wish for a return to traditions, but because they have been left out of the reforms, and are still forced to take on traditional roles.

Suicide is commonly committed by those suffering a terrible despair and lack of hope for a brighter future. In the case of these rural women, the suffering is not caused by mental health issues, but by circumstance. The lives of many Chinese women are as difficult as the lives of many Afghan women, and while most women are strong enough to withstand all sorts of misery, some are unable to withstand their despair. If there is a general problem, then there is also a general solution. A breakdown of tradition would clearly be a good thing for women in rural China, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the world where women do not have the luxury of individual human rights.

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Text and Images: Property of Natasha J. Lukanovich or contributors - Writers and Artists as Named