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Chinese Women in Suicide Crisis

Asia: Rural females in China kill themselves at an extremely high rate. Access to pesticide cited.


SUXIAO, China — For Yu Weiqun, marriage meant eight years of long days in the family wheat field and nights of cooking and cleaning. Her husband, often jobless, still complained she didn't do enough.

The breaking point came in October, when Yu found he had borrowed the equivalent of three years' pay without telling her. She struck back the only way she knew how--by drinking paraquat, a deadly pesticide.

"I was desperate. I thought to myself: 'Let me die. See what he can do then,' " says the 34-year-old Yu, who survived after village health workers pumped her stomach.

China has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, with some 290,000 deaths a year. And in contrast to the rest of the world, where men commit most successful suicides, more than half of China's victims are women--most in the countryside.

Chinese farm women kill themselves at a rate higher than almost any other group in the world.

In the most comprehensive study to date, an article published recently in the British medical journal The Lancet estimated 157,000 Chinese women die by suicide every year. The report, based on government statistics from 1995 to 1999, found suicide is the leading cause of death for Chinese under age 35.

China's suicide rate of 21 deaths per 100,000 people annually is above Japan's 18.8 rate and almost double that of the United States.

But the rate among rural Chinese women under 40 years old is 67 per 100,000, said Ji Jianlin, a researcher at Shanghai Medical University. He said they are three times as likely to die by their own hand as men the same age.

One possible reason: pesticide.

Women who live on Chinese farms have ready access to powerful poisons. Unlike Yu, most who attempt suicide by swallowing poison often live too far from medical help to be saved.

Thus, while the rate of Chinese suicide attempts accounted for by women is comparable to that in the United States--three-quarters of all attempts--they succeed in far greater numbers, Ji said.

Another possible factor is the deep-seated Chinese bias that women are worth less than men.

Rural women are still treated as the property of their fathers and husbands. Arranged marriages remain common in many areas, as is the kidnapping of women for sale as wives. Abortions of female fetuses are also widespread.

"In rural villages, girls aren't made to feel wanted or loved. They never feel their life is valuable," said Song Liya, editor of China Women's News, a state-run newspaper.

Song said she has written about dozens of suicide attempts over the last five years.

The youngest involved a 15-year-old girl in the central province of Hubei who drank pesticide after her father forced her to drop out of school and started beating her.

The girl, whom Song didn't identify, had to help her mother do all the farm and housework after her father married off her sister to a much older man. She couldn't stand the idea of living like her sister and mother, Song said.

The girl survived the dose of pesticide because her parents rushed her to the village clinic.

"She told me that she had been tired of life for a long time," said Song. "She said life is meaningless."

That suicides are even mentioned in official publications like Song's points to a greater openness in China, where just a decade ago the issue was considered a failure of the socialist system and too shameful to mention.

The Ministry of Health plans to fight suicides by limiting access to pesticides, a step that could halve the number of deaths, said a ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But experts say rural women need other help, particularly counseling.

When Shanghai opened a suicide hot-line in 1990, half of the 35,000 users in the first seven years were rural women, many calling long-distance, said Ji, the Shanghai researcher.

Suicide attempts should be seen as desperate appeals for help, health workers say.

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