Why are Nepalese women killing themselves?

Unfortunately, the answer is unclear, but apparently, suicide is the leading death cause in women aged 15-49 in Nepal. This is puzzling, because worldwide, suicide isn’t even in the top 10 in causes of death (WHO stats here).

I haven’t been able to find detailed stats on mortality rates in Nepal, but generally, men are far more prone to suicide than women. It is just flabbergasting that suicide is the number one cause for mortality in women, in a country which used to have perinatal circumstances as a leading cause for death. It would probably be overly optimistic to think that the perinatal circumstances have improved so dramatically that it fell behind as a major cause of mortality.

When googling for mortality causes and rates, I did come across this interesting WHO graph about suicide in the world. The red bits are where suicide rates are higher. So that’s one huge block of red in the Orient.

But still. It is worrisome that suicide is risen so high amongst women in the reproductive age in Nepal.

It is bit of a sad possibility that both the practice of forced marriages and the custom of outcasting widows has to do with it, but there are no data on that.

12 thoughts on “Why are Nepalese women killing themselves?

  1. Maybe this will help add some context:


    Nepali women living in low-income households are discriminated against from a young age. They often receive less food than boys, along with more work starting as children and fewer opportunities for education (Shakya, et al 2004:77). In 2001, families placed girls in arranged marriages at an average age of 16, before they are old enough to have a real sense of agency, and 52% of women had at least one child by the age of 20 (Mathur, et al 2001:91). Once married, a woman holds the lowest position in her husband’s family and is judged in large part on her ability to produce male children and work hard. Thus, when women are first married, most do not want to use any form of contraception, as the goal is to have a son as soon as possible in order to gain status in their new families’ eyes. A survey in 2001 showed that among married girls between the ages of 15 and 19, only 7% used any method of contraception and only 4% used a modern method (Mathur, et al 2001:92). Severe complications that require surgery or can result in death often occur when women become pregnant at a young age because the reproductive system is not yet fully mature.

    As women grow older and bear children, many begin to show interest in birth control options. However, in traditional households, the husband and his family make most, if not all decisions regarding the wife’s well being, including health, reproduction and contraception choices. Thus, although it is the wife’s job to produce healthy boys and run a good family, she does not have any decision-making abilities in those fields. Similarly, women are blamed for any unwanted pregnancies, no matter the cause, but are not allowed to choose birth control methods to prevent them without the approval of the husband’s family (Shakya et al 2004:77).

    In the case of an unwanted pregnancy, women often turn to abortion. Although abortion has been legal since 2002 and is relatively acceptable from a social standpoint, many of the rural women seeking abortions are still hesitant to go to a clinic. This is because it is not the wife’s job to take reproduction into her own hands, and women are scared of being recognized (Shakya, et al 2004:77). Thus, if a woman does decide to get abortion services, she will either travel to another town’s clinic, which can take multiple days, or go to a local ‘quack’ or healer.

    Among the women I met and saw in rural clinics, there were many who were clearly anxious or embarrassed about being there. On one occasion, when I was travelling in Dhading district (one of the six pilot districts), a male doctor offered to show me his hospital’s abortion room. However, when we arrived, we were informed that there was a woman inside undergoing an abortion. I turned around and started walking away, assuming that that meant we would have to come back at a different time. To my surprise, the doctor grabbed me by my arm and pulled me into the room, saying that the woman wouldn’t mind; women didn’t care about privacy in Nepal. As we entered, the woman quickly turned her head to the wall and covered her face with her dress, obviously not wanting to be seen. She appeared quite young and was part of a traditional Nepali community, which was visible from the style of clothes she wore. The doctor was completely unperturbed and started chatting with another male doctor who was performing the surgical abortion. I could see that the patient did not want me there, so at the first possible moment, I thanked the doctor and quickly left.

    At first, I was shocked by the lack of communication between the doctor and the patient, and also by the seeming lack of respect. However, after rethinking the situation later that evening and after reading my notes from the day, I realised that this was one of many interactions illustrating the gender relations between Nepali men and women and also between rich and poor. The doctor was oblivious to the way that the woman receiving the abortion felt and worse, did not seem to care. I saw many other similar displays in gender relations, and more specifically in the relationship between middle-class, male doctors and their traditional, often poor female patients during my trip.

    To avoid an embarrassing trip to the clinic, many traditional women opt for the help of uncertified ‘quacks’. If complications arise once the secret abortion is completed, the woman becomes terrified of being found out and does not want to go to the healthcare facility as she is participating in something that’s beyond her orb of control (Shakya et al 2004:77). By not receiving proper post-abortion care, women face a high risk of becoming seriously ill or dying. A report released 3 February 2009, stated that 20-27% of all maternal deaths are caused by unsafe abortions each year (“Unsafe Abortion” 2009), and this is probably a low estimate since the number of women dying at home each year after receiving unsafe abortions from traditional healers is not taken into account.

    Ipas’s programme on medical abortion would encourage women to choose safe abortions over home abortions since they provide a private alternative to the invasive surgical method. Medical abortion requires the ingestion or vaginal insertion of a pill that causes the foetus to abort. Thus, instead of being kept in the clinic for a day, which is what happens with surgical abortions, women could make an appointment with a doctor and then privately take the pill to avoid being stigmatized by peers and family.

  2. That’s quite interesting. I must admit, I’m not sure what would cause Nepalese women in particular to have such a high rate (although the comment above from PJ is quite informative). However, I do want to point out that though a large part of northern Asia is covered in the highest rates (the swath of red), so is almost all of eastern Europe. As for the Asian countries, I would venture to guess that it’s largely the culture of honor that results in the high rates there. I know at least for Korea and Japan (I lived in the former), both men and women (but men especially) face quite a lot of pressure to perform, and suicide is often viewed as the “honorable” alternative to failure (or as a result of failure). A few years ago, a lot of the major metro stops in Seoul had suicide preventing barriers put up so that people cannot throw themselves in front of a metro train, as this was apparently a quite common way to go. School children face this pressure as well, and it’s not uncommon to hear about children committing suicide if they don’t perform as well as expected on their important tests.

  3. This is a troubling phenomenon, and I’m glad to see the post on this blog. I’m surprised by the use of the term “the Orient,” though. It makes it sound like we’re discussing all of Asia as if it were homogeneous. Sorry to sound picky about a semantic point, but I think it may be helpful to avoid lumping the region together in order to avoid feeding some of the common West/East stereotypes.

  4. KHG, thanks for stopping by, and I share your alertness about the use of general terms like “the west”, “the orient” and “Europe”.
    Apart from “the west”, the only thing that is binding within those terms is approximate geographical location, and it is exactly in that sense that I used the term here. As a global geographical indication I do not believe that it can in anyway be stereotyping to use the term.

  5. Hippocampa,

    This may also be a language issue: “The Orient” has a pretty bad history as a term, which you may not be aware of since it’s not your native language.

  6. Indeed, I am not aware of that, Jender, thanks for pointing it out. It is the same term in Dutch, and there are no negative connotations to it as far as I know!

  7. dear pj,
    i am trying to write a paper on the feminism philosophy regarding the reproductive right in nepal and while reading through ur comment, i found it very helpful to me for writing a paper as it is quite much supported with the data, so if it is possible, could you please help me by providing all those information and materials to me??
    hoping for positive response.
    if it is fine with you then please contact me at bindasyaniaarty@yahoo.com

  8. Hey, just so happened to pass by.
    I am a Nepalese myself and am female, though i’m not living in Nepal right now, i’m studying in Singapore and have been here since i was 2. I have been to Nepal and i must agree with what pj said. Traditional families make their daughters marry off at quite a young age, I’ve heard a 14 year old have an engagement. pj pretty much explained what i have to say.

  9. i was looking for some thing that will best describes the masculine culture in Nepal and i found the article full of truth and most real.

  10. To KHG,
    Using the term orient applies here for what the author was trying to say. While there are obvious differences in different parts of countries let alone huge areas that are multi-national. The funny thing is your use of “east-west” is exactly the same thing. You used a general term to describe two large multi-national areas that while different do have some common cultural and other consistencies. The fact of the matter is everyone is so worried about PC and what people think it has become counterproductive and annoying. Orient is a good general term to describe a large area and there is nothing wrong with it nor is there anything wrong with most stereotypes. Why? Most are well earned and accurate. Now before everyone gets all up up arms many are horrid. Dumb polish,lazy african americans.and rude french are all examples. I just wanted you to see that you were gulty of exactly what you were critical of – Josh Phili

  11. just to clarify when i say there is nothing wrong with stereotypes im talking of things that are not neg like Asian eat a lot of rice,Mexicans eat beans.Italians yell. These things are true and while there are exceptions they can and do give a valuable look into a group in a general way. Not only that many things that really are stereotypical are and should be a source of pride for said group. I’m proud that Sicilians are know for fiery personalities when mad it is part of who we are in a general way not a big deal to look at things in a majority rules type of way.

  12. I remember. Some of then have to be servants of sone families and are hiread at a young age to do work and some of them are mistreated. I had friends in nepal who had troubles like this. It probably happens in this poor condition and low morale way in the asian countries more than the developed countries with high goverment policies.

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