A paper on gender differentials in the suicide rate in India, which appeared in The Lancet Public Health on Wednesday, establishes a trend which should worry policymakers. It appears that almost 40 per cent of women who commit suicide worldwide are from India, and most of them are under the age of 40 — the years for working and raising families. The share has gone up from 25.3 per cent in 1990 to 36.6 per cent in 2016, and has kept ahead of India’s share in the global population. While public attention has been focused on farmer suicides over the last two decades, this gendered public health crisis has gone unnoticed. As more women join the workplace, travel in search of opportunity, and bear the stresses of making a living and raising a family without the support of traditional family structures, the more the urge to step over the edge will beckon. This is the dark side of freedom, and policymakers must engage with it to decrease the burden.
As women increase their presence in the workforce, face new challenges, take on new responsibilities and abandon old certainties, the context changes. In an earlier generation, the claustrophobic bonds of the extended family may have driven women to take their own lives. Today, the trigger could be the very opposite — the stress of facing the world without the support of that same family. Consider the extreme situation: In the event of the death of a spouse, women could generally count on support from either their birth family or the family into which they had married. But women who have stepped outside the ambit of the arranged marriage may not be able to access any support in the event of a setback.
The paper which exposes the spurt in India’s share in women’s suicides is part of a joint initiative of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Meaningful solutions would probably be brought forth by such coalitions, including organisations tracking social and political change. The suicide figures stack up as an enormous waste of human capital, even without counting the costs of attempted suicide on victims and their families — the mental equivalent of physical morbidity. It’s a problem, and it can’t be ducked.