Suicides in the hills of Northern Pakistan

By Gul Rehan

On 29th of April, 2022, a woman jumped off a bridge with her three children in Karachi, trying to end her and her children’s lives, because her husband was jobless and the family was faced with financial difficulties. The financial issues also created a rift in the relationship between the woman and husband, leading to domestic disputes. Faced with the financial issues and the discord in the family, the woman chose to attempt suicide, taking her three children along. Luckily, the woman and her children were rescued safely, after some witnesses alerted rescuers.

Two women, in Ishkoman Valley, Ghizer, jumped in a river in two separate incidents, almost around the same time. They couldn’t be rescued alive. Although living thousands of miles apart, these women chose to die by suicide.

More than 300 suicides, attempted and leading to casualties, were registered in Ghizer between 1996 and 2010, according to media reports. In the neighboring Chitral district, 64 suicides were reported between 2012 and 2017. There were 36 homicides during the same period. The issue, however, is not confined to Ghizer and Chitral alone. Hunza, especially Gojal Valley, is also affected, along with other districts of Gilgit-Baltistan. Other districts hide the cases of suicides, to avoid the social stigma attached with the act, but cases are taking place around the year. Having said this, it is also pertinent to note that reliable statistics are not available, because cases are under-reported and there is no proper database at any level where such cases are being recorded.

Let’s also acknowledge the fact that many cases of murders are reported as suicide to protect the perpetrators. Family members, and tribal or communal forces, often, collude to misreports murders as suicide, as was proven by two cases in Ghizer this year, where transparent police investigation unearthed the conspiracy to deny the victims justice.

Nevertheless, the issue of suicide is endemic, historically speaking, and the causes are many. For some it is financial difficulty, while for others the reasons are different. High cost of living, unemployment, and cut-throat social competition, are driving people to depression and destitution. Economic woes, however, are not always the cause of suicide. If that was the case, the millionaires who die by suicide would be alive today.

When life gets harder, some, not all, decide to end it. Too often, suicide is the result of complete desperation and absolute loss of hope and faith. It is a final act from an individual, who may have received a sudden traumatic

A leading cause of suicides is undiagnosed or untreated mental health issues. Mental health remains a taboo in our societies and people refuse to seek help. The courageous one who step up to get help, often lead in situations where there’s no professional help available. There is a serious dearth of mental health professionals, psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors in our region, which is a major concern.

In the absence of expert professional support, people tend to rely on social support, or resort to religion, which is a powerful social and emotional support for many. According to religious teachings, the path to salvation is prayer and meditation; ‘Oh Allah, when I lose my hopes and plans, help me remember that your love for me is greater than my disappointments, and your plans for me are better than my dreams’.

Women are disproportionately affected by suicide attempts, the leading cause being depression and trauma. In traditional and, even modern, settings, women are also likely to be under more stress than men, due to the various obligations, boundaries and societal expectations; people talk about the ‘character’, ‘honor’ and ‘chaddar‘ or ‘chardiwari’ of women almost always, expecting them to be more cautious about being right, compared to men. Women are also expected to go through the pains of social pressure ‘honorably’, even if they are experiencing indignation and humiliation, or disrespect on daily basis.

At the social level, individualism is slowly becoming the norm. Nuclear families have replaced joint(single-parent) families, ending a social support structure that could have been used in a time of difficulty. This has led to financial stress for families, as each unit is now expected to be self-reliant, responsible for itself, and usually the hands that could lend support in difficult times are very few, if not absent at all. This drives people to desperation and some of them end up making fatal choices for themselves and the rest.

“The best among you are those who treat their wives well (Tirmidhi)“, is a Hadith, attributed to the Holy Prophet of Islam. Too often, however, domestic violence is the norm, with women at the receiving end in most, if not all, cases. Women are still treated as commodities or properties, having no role in decision making, no property ownership. Too often, they are also not allowed to work, or study, which builds up pressure. Women with good education, constant training, availability of credit facilities, and support of male and female family members are likely to be happier, more content, and may be able to avoid the kind mental stress that others have to face. This ideal life, however, does not exist. Domestic violence, oppression and suppression are the norm, and not the exception.  

A balanced life, in which women and men share responsibilities, are mutually respectful to each other, is more likely to be a successful life. Imam Ali (AS) counts some key points to keep the conjugal relation on a steady course. A woman should show honesty in her behavior, loyalty with regard to property, chastity, reputation, faithfulness, never tells a lie, and never makes life bitter for her and her husband with opposition and discord of any kind, and the husband is also expected to mirror the same attributes towards his wife.

Social support, in financial, moral, psychological and emotional aspects, is a key support that can bring down the incidence of suicides. Timely diagnosis

A lot of others say if there is disharmony and dichotomy between exogenous and endogenous conditions in every sphere of life, suicide, and even homicide are bound to happen. With education self-worth, sense and realization, consciousness, and awareness, the distinction between good and bad, right and wrong become clear. When these feelings, meaning, and dignity of living get suppressed, crushed, wrongdoings surpass righteous deeds, angst and hostility seethes about the outside world.

Celebrating globalization, modernity, and market forces brought about by modern technologies and infrastructure is every educated individual’s fundamental right, but not at the cost of uprooting from cultural context and collectivism. People should be intellectually, emotionally, politically, and socially ready, and capable to cope with such changes. Few blame that AKDN intervention brought social change but not corresponding opportunities for self-realization.  Somehow still different tribal, pastoral, and patriarchal systems up in the hills have their own understanding, interpretations and approaches to life and livelihood. Few others argue about top-down alienation when one does not get what one deserves due to anomaly in the system and hostility toward ‘others’[women]. This leads to the indigenization of anger, which instills negativity and hate within, and hate is a long form of suicide!!

It urgently requires qualitative, inter-disciplinary research led by experts who will ensure an ethnographic approach to understanding and addressing the issue. For fair stock-taking of suicides, murdering need to be identified clearly. French sociologist Durkheim viewed religious affinity as a source of social cohesion that would decrease the likelihood of suicide, nihilistic tendencies but the menacing trend is contrary to it. Even vocal social activists and journalists are gagged and suppressed from reporting such cases. There is the persuasion of the law of silence, hushing up to avoid infamy to the community and area.

To do away with this pathological coping mechanism, suicide, one need to be strong when strength is needed, be courageous when courage is need, be kind when kindness is needed, be generous when generosity is needed. With reference to our valley, Illiterate women must put their focus on innovation and new techniques of agricultural produce with the help of their male counterparts, because employment creation is not easy in rural areas. While literate and employed people must help other male or female individuals or organizations monetarily. Male should be source of courage and support for females than just enjoying criticisms. Because poverty is the mother of all evils.

As Imam Ali(AS) says, “The best of generosity is the help to the oppressed”. Collectivism and communism, unity, social cohesion based on gender equality should be every society’s priority for peaceful existence and progress of its inhabitants.

The writer hails from Ghizer, and currently teaches International Baccalaureate(IB) in a Gulf country and is pursuing her doctorate in Mathematics.

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One Comment

  1. The suicide cases are increasing from last few years in GB. An extensive Research is much needed to identify the causes behind suicides in Gilgit Baltistan. Government of GB need to develop Psychiatric Hospitals in every district of GB and hire Professional trained psychologist which is a demand of time. Concerned authorities should take steps and counter this issue.

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