Photo: lecercle/Flickr

Social Inequality and Suicide in India

Photo: lecercle/Flickr

A World Health Organisation (WHO) 2009 report states that it is inequality that has the most profound and far-reaching consequences for individuals and wider society.  The study, which draws on extensive research states  “There is overwhelming evidence that inequality is a key cause of stress … and the adverse impact of stress is greater in societies where greater inequality exists and where some people feel worse off than others.”

Even in the animal kingdom inequality has terrible health consequences. Studies on monkeys show that subordinate animals are more likely than socially dominant animals to suffer from clogged blood vessels and other negative changes in their metabolism.

In humans, there is a deep connection between injustice and poor mental health.

Depression, chronic anxiety, chronic insomnia, fatigue, diabetes, blood pressure and a harmful pattern of cholesterol, are some of the harmful effects of unfairness and inequality whether it is at home or at work or in society.

On the domestic front, inequality between the two sexes is commonly called gender-based inequality. In many cultures, it takes the form of male dominance and patriarchy. It is enforced and for many women there is no choice. Even when there is a choice cultural expectations and fear of rejection by the other members of society stops women from taking brave new steps towards change or equality. This ensures the practice is kept alive.

What are the ideal behaviours that the Indian culture expects of an Indian woman or what type of woman do we call a “good woman”.  Basically Dana Jack and Alisha Ali (2010) define the Brahamanical version of the model woman. The woman is married young, works very hard in the in-laws house, obeys the customs and rules of the in-laws. She forgets her own mothers training overnight and asked to forget her own first name and gets given a new name by the in-laws. She is completely devoted and faithful to her husband has no male friends. All her efforts are directed towards maintaining harmony in the family – meaning she must always appear to be happily married and strive to keep peace even when she is bullied. She must not seek undue contact with her own mother or family of origin. She must not answer back and remain silent in the face of bullying, emotional or physical abuse. And when there is fun and laughter – she must not be too loud!

In 2010 our community based action research (O’Connor and Colucci 2014) with the Indian women of Victoria identifed the nature of domestic violence. 165 women took part. One woman participant described her plight as follows

“I have been listening to three generations- first my father, then my husband and now my son. Silence Kills!”

The culture ensures the new bride remains silent. If she suffers she must not tell anyone. She moves into her in-laws house and is seen as an outsider. Her husband as a male is the head of the household and he makes all the important decisions. In my consultations with young women victims of domestic violence I heard about this type of behaviour. In one case the husband said “I am your husband I can do what I like” whereas she was not allowed to make a choice such as telephone her mother back in India or buy small gifts for her parents or decide how she spent her own salary. He himself, on the other hand, had no difficulty in sending gifts, air-tickets, or cash to his parents. He took all important decisions – financial and health related etc. This is inequality and of course the woman felt powerless and suffered depression.

Another form of inequality is expectation of dowry or coercive demands for dowry or cash or gifts. In India among Hindus, dowry is given from the bride’s family. Dowry demands related violence against the bride is well known to us in India and dowry has been banned in India since 1961. But it is also happening in expat Indians in Australia and is not banned here .

Our centre has raised a petition to make dowry demands illegal in Australia by bringing such demands under the Family Violence legislation 2008. 400 Australian Indians signed the petition. The petition was tabled in Victorian Parliament on 13 March 2014 by The Hon Ted Baillieu and supported by both sides of the Parliament.

A census in UK in 2010 showed that young Indian children in the UK to have the best mental health compared to their peers. But Indian women (15-35) in UK and India have among the highest suicide rates in the world(Bhugra 2006). On the other hand divorced women in India have the lower rates of suicide ( Patel 2012). An interesting hypothesis follows from the above contradictory findings that Indian women when they are young girls are happier but as they start to grow into adolescence cultural controls and dominance exerted first through fathers and then through husbands in the marriage is contributing to high rates of suicide.

At this 104th International Women’s Day let us say loudly and without fear that women deserve to be equal and given respect be it at home or in public arena.