Suicides rising among women in northern Pakistan

By Islamuddin Sajid

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AA) – Saira, 25, took her life this June, a year after she married her cousin in the Swat district of northwestern Pakistan.

Her troubled marriage took a toll on her mental health, her mother told Anadolu Agency.

Alarming increases have been reported this year among women and young students committing suicide in the region. In the first eight months of 2018, 346 people, mostly women, committed suicide in Malakand Division, a tourist spot located in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, local broadcaster Geo News reported.

The highest number of cases (222) was reported in Swat, which locals call the "Switzerland of Pakistan" due to its natural beauty.

"I was not in favor of her marriage with her cousin because she was not happy. The boy was illiterate while my daughter was a university graduate," she added.

"I tried to convince her father but he termed his daughter's resistance a violation of the local culture and tradition. He won but lost her daughter."

Police say domestic violence and unemployment are the main reason for the rise in suicides.

"There are many reasons but domestic issues, misbehavior, and violence by husbands or other family members are the main causes behind suicide cases reported with police," Shah Faisal, a local police officer in Malakand Division, told Anadolu Agency.

Only two to three percent of cases were reported to the police, while the remaining 97-98 percent were hidden by local people to avoid social stigma, Faisal added, estimating the actual number could be in thousands.

– Tribal customs

For ethnic Pashtun — who hail from northern Pakistan and parts of bordering Afghanistan — arranged marriages are a custom several generations have lived with and until recently was never questioned.

In the largely tribal ethnic group, which follows its own set of customs and values called the Pashtunwali, families can make or break an individual.

In such circumstances, marriages are often decided based on tribal affiliations — or sometimes even to settle scores.

"Most parents and family elders in Pashtun areas decide the future of their daughters or sisters without their consent, which later causes domestic disputes and unstable relationship with husbands, leading women toward suicide attempts," said Sherin Zada, a Swat-based senior journalist.

Elsewhere, women can walk out of an unhappy marriage, but in Pashtun culture divorce is a taboo.

"If a woman gets a divorce due to family issues she is ostracized. Most men won't marry her," said Najma Shah, a local woman in Dir district.

The region was once a hotbed of Taliban militants. Many happy families were destroyed in Taliban attacks and bombings. Some locals say the attacks have severely affected mental health of residents.

"A young man committed suicide today in Talash area after battling depression," Jamal Shah, a local police officer in Dir, told Anadolu Agency.

Zada said: "Everyone was affected by militancy here and I even lost my sister, many relatives and friends during terror attacks carried out by militants in Swat.''

She said the government should launch mental health programs to address the issue.

State authorities have established a commission to figure out the root cause of rising suicides.

"This is indeed very unfortunate. We as the commission are working on establishing a gender management information system which will help us to determine causes of such incidents or suicide, and formulate recommendations for informed measures for eradication of such evil," Amna Durrani, director of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Commission on the Status of Women, told Anadolu Agency.

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