A Call to Save Women in Rural China from Suicide

Jiaying Xu ’17

Contributing Writer

It was a cool May night. An ambulance raced past newly planted rice fields and dropped Fang at the emergency room. Disheveled and semiconscious, Fang exuded the sickly sweet odor of pesticide, her heart unbeating: another desperate rural woman committed suicide.

This scenario prevails in rural China, particularly among women, who suffer as outsiders of the family and grief bearers of domestic life. Often, the only escape they see is to take their own lives. Each year, 150,000 women commit suicide in rural China—the only place on Earth where more women kill themselves than men, according to the World Health Organization.

Why do rural women give up their lives? Are they too foolish to know their lives are valuable? Are they being selfish by leaving their husband and children behind? Most people would be tempted to say “yes.” However, by labeling their death as a foolish act, we minimize rural women’s suffering and subsequent death, as well as the societal share in the responsibility for their death. In fact, there are more stories behind the scene.

First, the in-law conflict. Many studies have shown that in rural areas, in-law conflict is a major reason for daughters-in-law to commit suicide. In the Chinese countryside, where patriarchal ideas persist, young rural women are treated like slaves. They are expected to cook, do farm work, raise children, and more. All the burden of domestic life simultaneously falls on their shoulders. If they fail to do anything, they will surely be scolded by their in-laws. Even if they carefully perform their role as somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother, and somebody’s daughter-in-law, they will still receive unfair treatment from their parents-in-laws, such as not being allowed to have dinner with the family when the guests come. As a traditional Chinese saying goes, “a married women is like spilt water.” Rural women basically have no control over their own lives.

Second, the domestic violence. The bouts of depression of Chinese rural women can also be aggravated by their abuse experience. In a recent survey conducted in Tianjin, of the 2,002 women respondents, nearly 20 percent reported that they have experienced being beaten by their spouses. A common saying among men highlights this fact, “marrying a woman is like buying a horse: I can ride you and beat you whenever I like.” Wide availability of pesticides in rural households in China offers an easy way of escape for women suffering from the abusive treatment.

Third, the lack of education. Today, China’s universities are far beyond the reach of the very poor. Children cannot go to school because their families cannot pay. Even more unfortunately, girls mostly bear the brunt of the hardships, since they are taken granted to get married to another family. In one study in Chongqing County, Sichuan Province, more than 30 percent of children ages 12 to 17 in poor areas were dropouts, and three-quarters of the dropouts were girls. As a consequence of illiteracy, rural girls are basically socially immobile, which create barriers for getting either jobs or substantial support. Such social isolation caused many rural women suffer a great deal of discrimination and exclusion from the outside world. In Chinese society, being an outsider means being subjected to unfair treatment by the community, which can be indifferent and even dishonest in interpersonal interactions. As psychological studies indicate, “the more they are isolated from the outside world the more dependent they are on their husbands.” Many rural women perceive their husband as the only person they could relate to and from whom they could expect support. However, as their husbands disrespect their existence, rural women become totally alone and helpless.

Since death is the only thing that rural woman could think of to make her oppressors bow to her memory and mourn for her, suicide becomes the last resort for suffering rural women to fight against the dominators and to obtain their dignity. The price they pay is forfeiting their own life. Yet, few people have stood up and spoken for them.

In a country that pursues high global status and fast social development, these women’s voices should never be neglected, because equal rights are the core of a nation’s construction. Without basic humane concern for the low-class rural women, a country can hardly achieve long-term success. Discouraging reports on rural women’s sufferings to uphold national image will only aggravate the suicide problem of women in China and generate a reputation of being hypocritical and unconcerned. The society should not only pay more attention to rural women’s lives and education to enable them to live with dignity, but also encourage them to follow one simple rule:

“You are yours. You are not anybody else’s.”

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