Big trouble in rural China

Washington Post: A suicidal "sense of despair" prevails among young wives.

Published May 16, 2007 2:34PM (EDT)

Oh, this is just so bleak and sad. (Good morning!) Tuesday's Washington Post reports that women in China are 25 percent more likely than men to commit suicide. (That's the reverse of Western countries, where suicide is much more common among men.) China's rural suicide rate is also three times the urban rate. "Being young, from the countryside and female is an especially lethal combination," says the article.

"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," it continues. "A sense of despair ... seems to prevail ..., particularly among women, many of whom shoulder the burdens of domestic life alone. Often, the only escape they see is to take their own lives."

The suicide rate in China is pretty high to begin with -- twice that of the U.S. But what researchers are seeing now is an increase in suicide among younger women, a rise in impulsive cases provoked by anger, plus a "predominance of family conflict" as a cause. In a study of women who'd attempted to kill themselves -- drinking easily available pesticide is a common method -- most said they were unhappily married, and nearly 40 percent said their husbands had abused them.

Which, yes, prompts the question that has been asked since the Qin dynasty: "Why don't they just leave?" Well, it just doesn't work that way. "I never thought of leaving my husband," said one woman whose hospital stay after she drank pesticide cost one-third of her family's income. "Where else can I go?"

Nonprofit groups working with rural women have had some success. Still, as one community leader observed to the Post, it remains difficult to overcome the traditional gender roles that still hold sway. "Women are inferior from the time they're born," said Li Guiming, 49. "When you give birth to a girl, people say you have a poyatou, a worthless servant girl. When it's a boy, they say you have a dapangxiaozi, a big fat boy."

The government has acknowledged the problem and has set aside funds for further study. Meanwhile, some of the pesticide companies have provided farmers with boxes and padlocks.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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