During the whole past month a Facebook post about a young student’s suicide in district Ghizer due to financial difficulties was shared widely. This was among various suicides reported from the same area over a short period of time.
The common thread in all the posts shared regarding this particular case was that the student was harassed by his school administration to pay his school dues, a sum of Rs. 800 which his family could not afford, so much that he was forced to kill himself. Accompanying these sketchy ‘facts’ was outrage and several judgmental and condemnatory statements about the insensitivity and callousness of teachers, schools and society in general. As someone who was part of a team of CEENA Health & Welfare Services, an organization in Gilgit working for the welfare of vulnerable children, that met the family of the deceased and also viewed documentary evidence, I wish to discredit various untruths that have been circulating.
CEENA was indeed first notified of this incident via unverified Facebook posts. In response, it sent a team to the student’s village to investigate the facts. This team included the Chairman of CEENA, Mr Sher Baz Khan. The facts that were uncovered differed considerably from what had been doing the rounds on social media. The following account is based on testimony of the deceased’s family, including his mother, siblings, uncles and a cousin, as well a letter issued by his school, a copy of which CEENA has archived.
Student Mushtaq was 14 years old and studying in Ghizer Public School, Gahkuch. His father, a driver by profession, had passed away in May 2016 after a long battle with cancer that had left his family severely strained financially as they had to sell most of their small piece of land to pay the bills even after a concession of around 50% from Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi. Now they are entirely dependent on a very small field which they use for cultivation and right next to which the father is buried. The loss of the father coupled with financial difficulties put a severe strain on the entire family and particularly on Mushtaq who was very close to his father and also a very eager student and a Boy Scout. His older dropped out of school even before the father passed away.
On May 2, 2017 the school issued a note informing parents that it had started a Middle School Program, which involved project and group work, problem solving and communication skills exercises. The total annual fee for this year-long program was Rs. 1,380/-. Nowhere did it say that this program was compulsory for all students nor did it issue a deadline for the fee to be paid. It did mention that those children who took part in it would be given certificates. Mushtaq brought the note home but was told that the family could not afford to pay the required sum. It is important to mention here that the school had exempted Mushtaq from paying tuition fee and was also providing him the school uniform. For this, family members expressed their gratitude, particularly to the principal, in front of the CEENA team.
However, Mushtaq must have felt frustrated by the family’s inability to pay for the program in which he wished to take part. The very next morning, he left home dressed for school but instead made a detour to the field where his father lay buried. He left his school bag and shirt on rocks near the grave and went further down into a lower field where he hanged himself from a tree using his school tie. His mother saw his things lying about and went into the field to find him hanging. She, the rest of the family and the neighbors got him down and took him home but he had already passed away and there was no time or possibility to revive him.
It is clear that this suicide was the result of the culmination of a number of factors, including emotional loss, the strain that a disease like cancer can put on an entire family, long-standing psychological pressure due to difficult financial circumstances and the frustration of a young boy being denied a good opportunity. However, it is unfair to blame the school or his teachers the way people have been doing from a comfortable distance on social media. It brings an institution into disrepute simply for lack of information regarding facts. The very fact that Mustaq took his life on May 3 following the issue of the notice on May 2, proves that the stories of him being insulted and harassed in front of his classmates repeatedly at the school have no basis in fact.
While the departed soul cannot be brought back, it is imperative to take steps to prevent further loss of life and to support this family in particular. CEENA has enrolled Mushtaq’s older sister at its Empowerment Center for Disadvantaged Children in Gilgit and she is to join school in grade 9 from next week. Given that she performs well in studies, she will be supported until the completion of her bachelor’s degree. We have high hopes for her as she is eager to learn and be a supporting pillar to her family. Her older brother has been out of school for two years and is interested in learning some technical skills to help him support his mother and make a living through other means than academics. For now he remains with his mother in the village.
The purpose of sharing this account with the public is that while people share such stories on social media with the intent of showing support, distortion of facts and their sharing without verification can only harm the understanding of this very sensitive issue. It is very easy to blame one person or institution, but a challenging task to undertake the requisite long, painstaking and detailed investigation each case requires and reach correct conclusions regarding causes which are very important to establish before measures can be taken to address them.
The power of social media is undeniable. It is crucial in highlighting issues that have been in the dark for a long time. At the same time we need to be conscientious and educated users. I request all social media users to refrain from sharing tragedies just for the sake of sharing but at the same time urge them to take practical steps, suggest solutions and then share them for the benefit of society.
The writer is the Project Manager of Orphan Care Support, a USAID-supported project of CEENA Health & Welfare Services.