In Rural China, a Bitter Way Out

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 15, 2007

SANSHILIUGUNZI VILLAGE, China -- Zhao wanted to sleep. Her husband wanted to watch TV. It was as simple as that.

The poor farming couple in Hebei province had no history of quarreling, Zhao said. But on this warm September night, neither would compromise. So Zhao, 34, left the large bed she and her husband shared with their two young sons, walked outside and grabbed a bottle of pesticide from a windowsill.

"I just drank a little bit, but it burned my throat and my mouth," said Zhao, who tends the crops, cares for her two boys, now 5 and 10, and runs a household of seven. "I took it without thinking anything deep. I just felt wronged, and I acted rashly. I never thought of the two children, not a bit. I thought of nothing."

The sense of despair that Zhao felt seems to prevail here in rural China, particularly among women, many of whom shoulder the burdens of domestic life alone. Often, the only escape they see is to take their own lives.

The suicide rate for women in China is 25 percent higher than for men, and the rural rate is three times the urban rate. In Western countries, men are at least twice as likely and sometimes four times as likely as women to commit suicide, studies show. But in China, being young, from the countryside and female is an especially lethal combination.

Because the women who commit suicide are almost exclusively poor, their desperation is a reminder of the social inequalities that plague China and the difficulties hindering government efforts to raise rural standards of living. Despite the fast-paced modernization of cities, women in the countryside have been left to face what they consider insurmountable obstacles, often stemming from the traditional view that wives play a subservient role in the household.

"They're unprepared for the great shock of the life, such as family conflict and the fast-changing social environment," said Xiao Jing, a researcher with a group in Hunan province that works to prevent suicide among young rural women. "Most women who commit suicide have a poor education, earn very little and are strongly influenced by traditional thoughts of the old China."

Overall, the suicide rate in China is comparatively high. An estimated 287,000 Chinese kill themselves each year, a rate of 23 people per 100,000, more than double the U.S. rate, according to a study by the Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Center, part of Huilongguan Hospital in the capital. The rate has remained relatively stable for years, but researchers say they are now seeing more impulsive cases, like Zhao's, as well as cases in which increasingly younger women are attempting suicide.

In its 2002 study, the suicide prevention center found that young women who had attempted to kill themselves had on average only five years of schooling and lived in households with a median per-capita income of only $13 a month, lower than the national average. Most reported being unhappily married, more than 42 percent mentioned financial problems, and more than 38 percent said their husbands had beaten them. "The most outstanding factor is the predominance of family conflict as a cause of attempted suicide," the study said.

"Before, it was 30- to 50-year-olds. Now it's 15 to 34," said Xu Rong, project officer with a Beijing nonprofit group that assists rural women. "Whenever their dreams and reality don't match, if they can't solve their problems, they attempt suicide."

In Zhao's case, her mother-in-law heard the argument over the TV, went outside and knocked the bottle from Zhao's lips. But the damage had been done. The family had to take out a loan to pay a hospital bill that amounted to a third of their annual income.

"I felt angry. I was so tired working in the fields during the day, I couldn't fall asleep," said Zhao, who asked that her first name not be used because of the stigma attached to suicide. "It's very common that in the countryside women will take pesticide when they're angry. I never thought of leaving my husband. Where else can I go?"

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