Farmer's wives paying a terrible price for progress

Asia Times: Beijing
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While Beijing builds its Olympic dream, and shiny Shanghai reaches skywards, tens of thousands of young Chinese peasant women end their short lives writhing in agony, next to empty bottles of pesticide.

While Beijing builds its Olympic dream, and shiny Shanghai reaches skywards, tens of thousands of young Chinese peasant women end their short lives writhing in agony, next to empty bottles of pesticide.

At a conference on mental health in Beijing last week, China's deputy health minister revealed that two million Chinese attempt suicide each year, and 250,000 succeed.

The official suicide rate of 22 per 100,000 people is higher than in Britain or America, though lower than in suicide hotspots such as Hungary, where up to 50 out of 100,000 people take their lives each year. But China is the only nation where more women than men succeed in killing themselves. Surveys suggest that more than half of all female suicides worldwide take place in China.

Most of the suicide victims are young women from the rural areas hardest hit by the country's free-market reforms. While their men labour in the cities for much-needed cash, women now do up to 70 per cent of China's agricultural work, where incomes are falling.

And while their urban sisters live ever more modern, independent lives, many peasant women enter arranged marriages with abusive, older partners. Some are even kidnapped and sold to women-hungry areas.

Xie Lihua, editor of a self-help magazine, Rural Women Knowing All, said: "For urban professionals, a family is only part of our lives. But for a country woman, she cannot see the world beyond. Her family means everything to her. Once something goes wrong in the family, she thinks the whole world has gone."

At which point she may reach for the potent chemicals that have transformed Chinese agriculture, and now provide the favoured escape route for the Chinese farmer's wife and daughter. Family conflict is often the cause; easy availability makes pesticide the weapon of choice in a quiet, desperate, nationwide protest that makes rural China one of the suicide centres of the world. The World Bank estimates that more than 100 million Chinese live below the poverty line of 68p a day.

Professor Zhai Shutao, a leading Chinese researcher on suicide, said this week: "If poisonous pesticides are strictly controlled, the suicide rate might well be lowered by half nationwide." Foreign agrochemical manufacturers are already trying to prevent their products being misused. Yili Hou, regulatory manager in China for the Swiss giant Syngenta said: "We have had several cases of people committing suicide in China with Paraquat."

Syngenta, formed last year from the British firm Zeneca and the Swiss Novartis, runs training courses with rural doctors to deal with suicide attempts, supplies distributors with remedies and teaches farmers safe product use. "But there are counterfeit versions of Paraquat in China," said Hou. "They have the same colour and smell, but not the emetic to make people sick if they drink it." Moreover, they are much cheaper.

Xie Lihua explained: "The issue of rural women committing suicide is not new. There have been countless cases throughout history: a girl born into a farmer's house is normally not welcomed or valued, so she grows up without valuing herself."

What is new is the method and potency of the protest. Xie has documented hundreds of sorry cases where drinking pesticide appeared just a cry for help, but turned deadly because of poor medical care.

In belated recognition of the depth of the problem, the Chinese government now devotes more attention to mental illness. Beijing has launched a 10-year plan to improve mental health services, especially among women in the countryside, and will endorse the nation's first mental health law, to stop discrimination against the mentally ill, by 2003. Official estimates suggest China has 16 million mental patients, but analysts believe the true figure could be at least three times higher.

Even government experts admit neurological disorders have outstripped cancer, heart and respiratory diseases to account for the biggest slice of medical expenditure in China, comprising 20 per cent of last year's total health bill. As the new pressures of the market economy increase anxiety, Chinese are falling prey in growing numbers to schizophrenia, depression, insomnia, senile dementia and alcohol and drug abuse.