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As many as 45,026 women died by suicide in India in 2021; nearly 1 every 9 minutes.
Over half of them – 23,178 – were housewives. On an average, 63 housewives died by suicide every day in India in 2021.
While more men (1,18,979) than women died by suicide in India in the past year, a deviation from the pattern was observed in those aged below 18, where the incidence of suicide was higher in females. The top causes – family problems, love affairs, and failure in exams, among others.
The latest annual report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has thrown light on some grim trends, fuelling concern over mental health and social status of women in India.
India's female suicide burden is enormous. Indian women make up 36 percent of all global suicides in the 15 to 39 years age group – the highest share of any nation in the world.
"Irrespective of education and financial independence, women are still not as empowered as we would like to believe. Gender-based discrimination is still prevalent, and this inherent bias is reflected in the high number of female suicides," Dr Rakhi Dandona, Professor at Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), told The Quint.
Housewives Die in 14% of All Suicides in India: How Is Profession/Economic Status of Women Linked to Suicide?
Explaining the worrying statistic, Dr Rakhi Dandona noted that the proportion of housewives is higher within women in India, naturally leading to higher numbers of suicide cases within the group.
"Housewives is documented under 'occupation' in the NCRB; and what this means is that occupation of 51 percent of the cases reported in the NCRB was housewives. This has to be seen in relation to the rate of suicide and the distribution by marital status as well, in which 'currently married' women account for the majority of suicide deaths. Most women in India are married during the age when suicide deaths are more, and hence you see more housewives in the data."Dr Rakhi Dandona, Professor at Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI)
A seminal Lancet Public Health study (2018) on suicides in Indian women speculates that the increasing number of female suicides may be related to a conflict between women’s increasing education and empowerment and the persistence of their lower status in Indian society.
Notably, the number of suicides reduces as women become more financially empowered:
"Social and economic security is naturally lower for individuals with low income. Access to healthcare is also less," Dr Yogesh Jain, paediatrician and founder of Jan Swasthya Sahyog (JSS), said while speaking to The Quint.
A 1.17 percent rise in female suicides has been observed in 2021, when compared with the number of cases in 2020 (44,498).
Family Problems, Marital Issues, Illnesses: Top Factors Behind Female Suicides
Family problems, illnesses, and marital issues are the principal contributors behind female suicides in India, as per the NCRB report.
1,503 of of the marriage-related suicide deaths were over dowry, while 217 were linked to divorce. Nearly 67.5 percent – 2,757 – of female suicides over marital issues were below the age of 30.
A large chunk of female suicides are happening at an age when women are entering marriages, when a large proportion of them are becoming housewives, notes Dr Dandona.
Of the 9,426 female suicides due to illnesses, 43.25 percent – 4,077 – were due to mental illness.
More Suicides in Girls Under 18: What Leads to Suicide at Young Age?
5,655 girls below the age of 18 died by suicide in India in 2021 – a figure slightly greater than the 5,075 male suicides in the same age group. This marks an anomaly in the pattern seen in other age groups, where the number is higher for males.
In 2020 as well, the number of girls under 18 who had died by suicide was higher (6,004) than the figure for boys (5,392). In fact, the same variation has been observed over the past few years – and has indeed become the norm for the particular age bracket.
Family problems, illness, love affairs, and failure in exams emerged as the chief causes behind suicide deaths of girls in India last year.
The high number of deaths due to failure in examinations is symptomatic of the larger problem of student suicides plaguing India. As many as 13,089 students killed themselves due to 'exam stress' in 2021 – highest in five years.
"Going by the data, we can say that gender does not play a significant role, and is not a major risk factor below the age of 18," Dr Yogesh Jain, who has researched on suicide in rural India, said.
"Unlike the western world, where 90 percent of the suicides are a manifestation of a psychiatric disorder, in India, many young people's deaths by suicides do not have psychiatric comorbidities. They are rather related to social insecurity – poverty, unemployment and so on. These issues of social security can effect impulsive decisions in the youth, a group which is more prone to take spur-of-the-moment decisions."Dr Yogesh Jain, Paediatrician and Founder of Jan Swasthya Sahyog (JSS)
"Fear of joblessness, fear of not clearing examinations are also factors linked to suicides in this age group," he added.
Do Marriage & Education Play a Role?
While one would expect that incidence of suicide would lower with education, data shows that is not necessarily the case. Female suicides exhibit an increase as the level of schooling goes up, and then chart a drop after higher education.
"We have seen that even while literacy is higher in some southern states, the suicide rate is also quite high there. We can hypothesize that higher awareness that comes with education may be leading to more suicides, or psychiatric comorbidities may be more common with higher education. The aspirations of getting a job or opportunity of a particular kind also rise with education," as per Dr Jain.
Marriage is also not a protective factor – Indian women in marriages appear to be much more vulnerable to suicide than their unmarried or divorced counterparts.
The NCRB report reveals that nearly two-thirds – 63.69 percent (28,680) – of women suicide victims were married. Unmarried women constituted 24 percent of the total, 0.6 percent were divorced, and 2.2 percent were widowed.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Evidently, the problem of female suicides in India is extensive and multifaceted. The data points to no clear solution to the issue – education, income, marriage singularly do not seem to offer protective advantage.
Dr Dandona, who had co-authored the 2018 Lancet study on female suicides in India, opines that more qualitative research is required to understand the efficacy of approaches to ameliorate the problem of suicidal deaths.
"We simply do not have research or data that can allow us to answer this question specifically. For example – if education was the solution to reduce suicide deaths in females, then the south India should have lower death rate, but it does not. We need sound qualitative research to understand "why of suicide deaths in India,"" the public health expert said.
Dr Jain, too, makes this point: "The NCRB records do not mention cases of attempted suicides. There is no mention of these numbers. These cases, the factors behind them need to be picked up and looked at."
Experts concur that intervention is necessary at the school and early college level. Counselling possibilities should be available on each portal for the youth, and helpline centres should be set up for young people. here needs to be more conversation about depression and suicide, and it needs to involve both men and women.
Support systems – at family level, community level, and at the level of the state – are also essential.
We need to better the systems for tackling suicides in general in India. And we need to push for more research-driven, gender-specific strategies to address the mammoth issue of female suicides.
(This was first published on 9 September 2022. It has been republished from The Quint's archives in the run-up to International Women's Day on 8 March.)