Thursday, July 4, 2013

Suicide in India

Jiah Khan's suicide last month got me started on some interesting research about suicide in India, particularly suicide in the young adult (15-29) demographic. The results, I have to say, were rather shocking. I had no idea about how widespread the problem is, nor about the antiquated laws that surround it.

According to recent study by Lancet, suicide is the second-most common cause of death for those aged between 15 and 29 in India. In 2010 alone, over 114,000 males took their own lives. Of these, 40% were aged 15-29. About 56% of the 72,100 women that committed suicide were in the same age bracket. Vikram Patel, a psychiatrist and lead author of the report, stated that female suicides in India are quite often linked to relationships (including arranged/ forced marriages and as a consequence of domestic violence) In contrast, for men, the predominant reason was financial challenges and work.

Given that many of these deaths occur in the lower economic strata, self-poisoning with pesticide and hanging are the most common means of suicide. The deaths are usually much more painful and chances of survival lower than with means like overdosing on non-prescription drugs.

While public health interventions, for example, restricting access to pesticides, may aid preventing many suicides, there is a stronger underlying social issue that must be addressed to make a real impact. India has the second highest absolute number of suicides in the world, the leader in this case being China. As a relative rate, India is still significantly above the world average suicide rate.

The Lancet study went on to state that India’s suicide rate is approximately 16 per 100,000 individuals per annum. The comparative rate in the developed world, considering a countries like the USA and UK is about 75% of that rate.

One of the primary challenges, besides the soaring debt of farmers in rural areas, is that because of rapid urbanization, India has witnessed a change in family structure. Youngsters move out of joint families into nuclear families, and with this there is a substantial breakdown of the underlying social support structures.

Another major contributor to suicide, particularly in men in India, is that society does not typically allow males to express their emotions freely. Without an adequate social outlet for expression, it is quite common for frustration, depression and anxiety to take root. This is consistent with a 2011 study which indicates that India had the most dire rate of severe depression of 18 countries surveyed.

Of course, using the law to solve social challenges rarely works - as was demonstrated in the women's rights in India debacle earlier this year. In fact the same applies for other social challenges like Indian online casinos. In this case, getting rid of colonial laws like those imposing prison sentences for suicide survivors would be a great first step. Then, to acknowledge the problem as a serious mental health issue would be the next step. Psychiatric clinics in rural India are scarce at best, and the rate of suicide in rural India is almost twice as high as urban areas.

Unfortunately there is also still a stigma around receiving treatment for mental issues, including depression. It is these social attitudes that need to change if India is going to overcome its challenge.

Worldwide, up to one million people die by suicide every year, according to the World Health Organization. In the last 45 years, suicide rates have increased by 60%, says the WHO, and suicide is among the three leading causes of death among people aged 15 to 44.

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On a personal note, my projects with the NGO in Uganda are still ongoing. As always, I've still got my fingers crossed every time I venture out to play lottery online on this Indian website or suspend my better judgement and try my luck on USA online gambling sites like this in the hopes that I can raise enough funds to do all the social work I really want to do (yes, yes I know it's rather ironic given the social issues I write about on this blog!). In the meantime, and on a more practical note, I'm also looking to websites like TRAOK for innovative crowd-funding solutions to my financial challenges... they're about to launch a rather cool programme for social entrepreneurship - more on this soon!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Women, Rights and Respect

Working in the developing world is challenging for the most part. One of the most difficult aspects for me has been adjusting to the attitudes towards women. This is something I largely took for granted whilst living in the UK and paid even less attention to it whilst in Canada. The recent events in India, however, is just one example that brings home just how different cultures in the developing world are and what little regard they seem to have for women.

Last month the horrific gang rape on a bus of 23 year old medical student from Singapore whilst in India caught the attention of the world. Needless to say the publicity provided a much-needed platform for women’s rights activists both in India and abroad. According, to women's groups there is one rape every hour in India, with females belonging to lower castes or from tribal origin experiencing the highest risks.

In Africa this is no different. Rape in South Africa, for example, is a statistic only an idiotic government would ignore – the country has one of the highest reported rape rates in the world. Note the deliberate emphasis on the word ‘reported’. It is significant because the real sexual assault rates in both South Africa and India is an order of magnitude higher. Society in these countries is quick to blame some external factor, or worse the women themselves for such assaults. Now in India, it's only due to social networks like Facebook that this incident has become a global issue in feudal conservatism.

The call for tougher Indian rape laws has been around for quite some time. The same situation applies in the African countries where I have done much social work. And now, the political pressure has yielded some results in India in terms of fast track courts. As a short term measure this is good but what happens when the fury expressed by the public on the topic dies down in a few months. Will India have to wait for another gruesome incident before such a reaction shakes up politicians to take a harder look at the root cause of such behaviour?

In South Africa, it appears that people rarely openly acknowledge the issue – this applies to both men and women alike. It is as though they are living in a cocoon of cognitive dissonance. They know the issue is there, and it’s big. But like the dark Lord Voldemort, don’t you dare talk about it. Suggest that the government acts more harshly on it and you’re greeted by stories of innocent young women rounded up by the police who quite blatantly expect to receive sexual favours in exchange for release. And these are not urban legends – this has happened to several people I have worked with in women's shelters.

For years women's support groups have demanded the laws on rape be modernized. But, so far law makers and corrupt politicians have been slow to answer to women's pleas from brutal Delhi. The issue as suggested earlier in this article, is not one of law alone. It is one of societal attitudes and a lack of respect for women in these countries. The question remains if the law cannot fix it what really needs to be done to rectify the situation.

I believe the answer lies in a combination of education and mass action. For me, this is no different an issue to that of suffrage. Women need to fight for their rights. Otherwise they will continue to be given a meaningless lip service on the issues that matter to them and no real change will be effected. The irony of the situation is that in both India and many countries in Africa, women tend to be the more productive members of society – especially in the rural areas. They are hard-working and determined. Imagine if they all stuck together in unity for a common cause, the greater good. It would be exactly what is needed to shock the system into a major correction.

The momentum is there now in India to create a real change, but it needs to be sustained and elevated. The fast track courts proposal should be considered only as an interim solution and the law needs to be given real teeth. By real teeth I mean effectively enforced. Otherwise women will be gambling with their lives as they would on some online casino in India - they can take a stand but rest assured they will always lose in the end.

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On the personal front, I have just finished a large project with a women’s rights NGO in Uganda which was a fascinating experience… more about this in my next article. Sometimes I wish I could just play lottery online or actually simply click here or visit this website and win big myself so I can fund so many of the ventures I know will help in these countries. Not that I would ever venture to gamble online - ironically this is an introduction to my forthcoming article on gambling and its related social issues in developing countries. This is one more area, like lack of enforcement of women’s rights, that unfortunately affects the poor, despite the available regulation.