Suzanne Wang ’13 Examines Female Suicide in Rural China

In her Brace Fellow Presentation on Monday, Suzanne Wang ’13 examined why over a million women in rural China attempt suicide each year.

Wang shared her research in a presentation entitled “Buried Voices and Bitter Ends: Women and Suicide in Rural China.” Her research focused on both the factors contributing to such a high percentage of female suicide in rural China as well as the cultural history of gender roles in China.

According to Wang, 150,000, or 15 percent, of the one million rural Chinese women who attempt to commit suicide every year succeed. In most countries, the male suicide rate is two to four times greater than the female rate, but in rural China, 25 percent more women than men commit suicide.

Wang traced many factors in women’s suicide in rural China to Ancient Confucian teachings, namely that the family is a microcosm of the country’s government. Confucianism enforces the idea that the patriarch is the ruler of the entire household.

Although women gained some equality in 1950 under the government of Mao Zedong with the Land Reform Laws, which encouraged women to work on collective farms, women still failed to earn equal pay. According to Wang, women harvested 53 percent of the crops in rural China but only earned 83 percent of the men’s wages.

Wang said that women in present-day rural China are now responsible for keeping both the farm and household in order.

Wang interviewed seven Chinese women as part of her research. According to Wang, her interview with a village woman named Luxian made her realize how hard rural women work.

“[Luxian] had to play the role of the mother in addition to growing and harvesting the crops. When she listed everything she did in a day, it really shocked me,” said Wang.

Shame and “loss of face” have acutely negative psychological effects on Chinese women, causing them to feel paranoia and guilt, sometimes driving them to commit suicide.

“I talked to a woman who left incense burning for too long in her house, burning down a large portion of it,” recalled Wang. “The experience and the shame she felt from the community led her to attempt to commit suicide.”

In China, 40 percent of all suicides are caused by mental illness, according to Wang. Though this percentage is much lower than the rate in the United States, where 90 percent of all suicides are caused by mental illness, Wang still believes it is a significant factor in suicides in China.

According to Wang, mental illnesses are heavily stigmatized in China.

“I talked to a woman who said that, even if she was diagnosed with a mental illness, she would feel ashamed, and nothing would change. The consequences would be greater if she was diagnosed,” said Wang.

Wang also connected suicide to the tradition of patrilocality, which is the social practice of women moving in with their husband’s entire family after marriage–a custom very common in rural China. The husband’s parents often have very high expectations for their new daughter-in-laws, putting a great deal of stress on the young women, according to Wang.

Away from home, the newly wedded women do not have a support system and feel isolated and lonely, which can drive them to commit suicide. It is frowned upon for the women to visit their former homes, a social stigma which cuts the women off from their own families.

Judy Wombwell, Instructor in Dance, said, “[Wang’s presentation] made me feel empathy for the women. When she talked about the potential causes [of suicide], I could identify with the feeling of being trapped.”

Wang also cited the easy accessibility to pesticides in rural areas as a contributing factor to the high suicide rate, since many women attempt suicide by ingesting pesticides.

Wang cited a study that found that 80 percent of all attempted suicides in one rural village were first thought of less than two hours before they were carried out. After banning pesticides, the village saw a 63 percent decrease in suicides.

“The [factor of] pesticides really interested me… it’s so deadly and lethal [but] so easily preventable,” said Wang.

In addition to interviewing rural Chinese women, Wang researched her topic by reading books and studies.

Carol Israel, Wang’s advisor for the project and Associate Director of the Graham House Counseling Center, said, “Suzanne did all the academic research. I helped her with how to approach the more personal aspects of her project, like the interviews.”

Peg Harrigan, Instructor in Art, said “Suzanne has a really strong connection to China, and I would not be surprised if she continued her research [to find a] solution to this problem.”