“Agni Pariksha of Housewives”- 30 November 2011


In my column last fortnight I had mentioned the NCRB (National Crime Record Bureau) 2010 report, published in September 2011, highlighting the unfortunate fate of women who lost their lives due to accidental death and by suicides. The total number of women who committed suicide in 2010 was 47,419. Out of these numbers 25,058 women were housewives. This means that housewives accounted for 52.8% of the total women victims of suicide in the country. Take another eye opening figure. 44% of the housewives who took the drastic step to terminate their lives belonged to the youngest age group in the adult category (as decided by the GOI), and that is 15 years of age to 29 years of age. Another 34.1% belonged to the next age group of 30 years to 44 years of age. This means that a total of 78.1% of housewives that committed suicide belonged to the most productive age group of 15 years of age to 44 years of age. What a national waste of the most useful age group. This needs to be taken very seriously by parents of young girls, psychologists, social workers and other concerned communities as this is the most vulnerable age group for suicides. As the age progresses the suicide rate drops. A further surprising fact tells us that 69.2% of the total suicides were married women. 22.8% belonged to the unmarried category and 4% belonged to the divorced/separated category.

What all these facts and figures convey to us is not a rosy picture at all for the young married women. This category of young brides (15-29 years of age and 30 to 44 years of age) need supportive care and guidance of their parents the most. The unmarried are not as vulnerable to commit suicide as the married. This is surprising for a country where marriage is considered the prime goal of women. The unmarried can take better care of them-selves it seems either/or they may be safe in their parental homes. We do not know the details. This is only a conjecture. The divorced/separated too can take care of their lives as they have faced it all and survived. So they may be tougher in the mind. That reminds me of a bright comment of a bright teacher in a training workshop. She said that ‘maturity may come with marriage since it teaches us so much!’ I suggest she rethinks her premise as we just now saw that the married housewives accounted for 52.8% of the total female victims of suicide. This means that marriage brings a lot of trauma and stress and not all become ‘mature and wise’. Some become ‘otherwise’- many prefer to give up and die. This is the traumatic side of marriage that needs highlighting.

Let’s now focus and study the causes of suicides. Out of the multiple causes mentioned I will pick out the category of causes where the proportion of females is more than the men. Male suicides lead in many categories but let’s look at the ones that are women specific. The proportion of women is more in the cause of suicide due to ‘Dowry’ (97.4% are women and the 2.6% are men). I wonder what sort of harassment led the men to commit suicide for dowry? One guess could be parental pressure/demands for dowry and/or marital discord due to dowry demands which drove one spouse to despair. The other causes/categories where the proportion of women are higher than men in suicides is- ‘Illegitimate Pregnancy’ (100% women), ‘Physical Abuse (including rape, incest, etc)’ (74.4%); ‘Barrenness/ Impotency (not having children)’ (71.6%); ‘Divorce’ (61%); ‘Suspected/Illicit Relation’ (57.2%); and ‘Cancellation/Non-Settlement of Marriage’ (50.3%).

The NCRB report states that ‘it is observed that social and economic causes have driven men to suicide and emotional and personal causes have driven women to commit suicide’.

Another fact worth mentioning is that among all the diverse means adopted by victims to commit suicide, women lead in only one category- that is suicide by ‘Fire /Self Immolation’. 65.2% women have adopted this method to die and only 34.8% men use this method. This takes us back to my last column that was published where I mentioned that among the accidental deaths too women die by ‘fire’ the most. So whether it is accidental death or it is a case of suicide ‘fire’ seems to be a strong element in the picture. There seems to be a strange connection of women with ‘fire’. The lady of the house keeps the hearth burning and when the ‘home fires’ begin to burn her instead she uses it as the best method to escape or falls a victim to it. ‘Agni Pariksha’ (test by fire), an ancient Indian idea, very deep rooted in the mind still, was used by society for women to either prove themselves or to escape life’s drudgery. ‘Sati’ and ‘Johar’ are old customs which we thought had largely vanished. But no, not yet. It still exists, however, in different forms.

It seems Indian women are still giving the ‘Agni Pariksha’ (test by fire) and failing miserably.


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