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Female Suicide in China

Elaine Y. Wan

Amongst all the scandals, trials and interviews Hillary Clinton's husband has faced so far, Hillary has stood out as an exemplary model of an independent, capable female politician. She has served as a role model for many American women who aspire for a career beyond the home. Elizabeth Dole, the wife of former presidential nominee Bob Dole, a former president of the Red Cross, and a potential presidential candidate herself, is also a spectacular role model for females. These role models have given more women a sense of self-worth and motivation to achieve more in their lives. However, in areas like rural China where there are fewer female role models, there are high rates of female suicide.

Last June, Hillary Clinton visited China and met with leaders of Beijing's women's movement, where the high rates of female unemployment and suicide were brought to the attention of the international community. According to a recent study by the World Bank, Harvard University and the World Health Organization, 56 percent of the world's female suicides occur in China. The Chinese government tallies that female suicide is responsible for 18 of every 100,000 deaths, a rate five times higher than other countries.

China has a rising economy and more laws are being passed to protect women's interests and their role in society. So why are so many Chinese women taking their own lives?

Chinese officials and medical experts have concluded that the low status of females, the rapid shift to a market economy and the availability of pesticides have all contributed to the high suicide rates. Unlike cases in Western countries, large numbers of suicides in China are the result of impulsive acts by people who showed no signs of mental illness, depression, or alcohol or drug use.

One suicide scenario involves an argument between a farmer and his wife over crops, which is followed by the wife's ingestion of a lethal pesticide available within arm's reach. She leaves her children orphaned and her husband widowed. The community loses a healthy member who could have contributed to the nation's production. There are reports of women committing suicide because of extramarital affairs, or even because one's neighbor refused to cut down an overhanging tree.

In Western societies, suicide is deemed as a foolish answer to any problem. The Chinese are trying to instill this belief into young rural women who are usually the suicide victims. Leaders of the Chinese women's movement claim that most rural Chinese females lack self-worth because their lives only revolve around taking care of the family, giving birth, cooking, cleaning and farming. Scientists also attribute the high suicide rates to the widening gap between the rich and poor. Many rural women realize there are many comforts and pursuits of leisure they will never be able to experience because they are not educated and do not have the opportunities necessary for them to create a new life.

In rural China there are no telephone hotlines to counsel potential victims. Instead, news agencies broadcast psychological analyses of females who have committed suicide over the radio and loud speakers. There are also stories being published in magazines about women who have made a career by marketing their cooking and sewing skills to encourage rural women to cherish their lives. However, few women in China have achieved important leadership roles. A living example of a woman who has surpassed obstacles to obtain respect in her community, an education and her own career would be better inspiration for rural Chinese women than any story in the media. Women in the West have the opportunity to go to school or get a job, but most importantly they have role models to show them what an education and a career can do. Chinese women will not have a sense of self-worth unless someone shows them their potential.

Suicide is the last resort for those who believe they have no other alternative. With the influx of Western values and more female role models among the Chinese, many rural women hopefully will realize that they are valued and that another woman or an overgrown tree are not good reasons to give up a healthy life.

Elaine Y. Wan's column appears each Tuesday.