Shame, Stigma and Suicide: For Girls, the Pandemic Made It Worse

The coronavirus added another layer of anxiety, spurring a sharp rise in Nepal's child suicides.

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DAILEKH, NEPAL — In the wee hours of a monsoon night, Sarbraj Sarki learned his oldest daughter was missing. He’d last seen her around dusk, when she’d bathed, washed her clothes and eaten dinner. The family went to bed, but Sarki’s wife woke up around 3:30 a.m. to go to the bathroom. On the way back, she glanced through their daughter’s bedroom window. She wasn’t there.

The Sarkis combed the room to see if any clothes were gone, a sign their daughter may have eloped with a boy. It’s a common fate for girls in this farming village in midwestern Nepal, about 700 kilometers (435 miles) from Kathmandu, the capital. But the Sarkis’ daughter kept her room just so — no one was allowed in wearing shoes — and not one item was out of place.

The sun rose and fell before a neighbor found her. She had hanged herself from a tree. (Her name and village are being withheld to avoid stigma.) She was 16 years old, a beloved daughter. She helped her family till and harvest the fields, made videos with her little sister, kept a spiral notebook of poems she wrote in red ink. She dreamed of becoming a nurse.

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Sarki and his wife grasped for an explanation, but their shy, quiet teenager hadn’t shown any signs of psychological trouble. Even if she’d told them she was sad or despondent, what could they have done? “There are no counselors here, and there is no awareness about mental health,” Sarki says. “It is closer for us to get to the market than a hospital.”

Nepal has a threadbare mental health care system, with few resources for young people in distress. In 2020, there were just three child psychiatrists in the country of 29 million people, according to an article in BJPsych International, a psychiatry journal published in the United Kingdom. Before the pandemic, Nepal already had the second-highest estimated suicide rate in South Asia among people age 15 to 29, according to the World Health Organization. Months of lockdown didn’t help.

Young people’s lives became a whirl of unpredictability: school closures, travel restrictions, fear of infection and death. They had few refuges from family violence or outlets for anxiety and grief. “They can’t meet friends and share their thoughts and feelings,” says Ambika Pulami Magar, a counselor at the Centre for Mental Health & Counselling-Nepal, a nongovernmental organization. “There is no sharing of feelings with parents.” Girls bore a disproportionate burden.

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In each pandemic fiscal year, Nepal Police recorded more than 650 suicides of children younger than 18 — a roughly 40% jump from pre-pandemic numbers. The majority were girls. “The health ministry is taking it seriously,” in part, by raising awareness, says Dr. Sangeeta Kaushal Mishra, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Population. But in Nepal, mental illness is often viewed as the result of black magic, something oracles and shamans treat — not doctors. “If a girl commits suicide, they assume it is because of a love problem,” Magar says. “If they survive, then they are looked down upon.”

The rural Dailekh district is a stretch of cloud-kissed mountains, rolling green hills, paddy and maize fields, and roaming buffaloes and goats. There are few jobs, so many men migrate to India to work in restaurants and hotels. In some villages, it’s hard to even leave home — the roads are so rocky that motorbikes can’t traverse them. Locals huff up hills and cross a river just to reach the market. It’s not hard to imagine a distraught young woman feeling trapped.

On a recent morning, the sky swells with rainclouds. Bhavisari Damai stands outside and points to a mud home with a thatched roof on a hilltop. Last year, Damai’s 16-year-old daughter moved there after eloping with a neighbor who had recently returned from India. Damai’s younger daughter climbed the hill every day to see her sister. “My sister was a talkative person and always had a smile on her face,” the younger daughter says. (Her name is being withheld to avoid stigma.) “But when I visited her, she would hardly talk, and she never smiled.” Once, she confided that she shouldn’t have gotten married.

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The union lasted just five days. One morning, the 16-year-old awoke early, ostensibly to cut the grass. She never returned. That afternoon, her family found her hanging from a tree, a common method of suicide in Nepal. (Her name and village are being withheld to avoid stigma.) “I don’t understand why,” Damai says, wiping away tears with hands roughened by field work. Her daughter was pretty, cheerful, a good student. She wanted to become a police officer.

Broadly, Nepalese girls are expected to maintain “honor,” a veneer of obedience and purity. That means placing their family’s needs before their own and quietly tolerating whatever hardships befall them. “They feel pressured, stressed and neglected,” says Chetana Lokshum, executive director of The Relief Trust, a nongovernmental organization that offers counseling services. “They are expected to bear everything, and that is a cultural norm.”

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Mere rumors of a sexual assault or a mental illness could disgrace a girl and her family. If she is unwed, it could scuttle her marriage prospects, and sometimes those of her younger sisters. If she is married, her husband’s family could find him a new wife. Child brides are in a particular bind — young, immature and facing societal pressure to stay in unhappy unions, lest they tar their family name. “Suicide becomes an easy solution to their problem,” Lokshum says. “They think it is difficult to face the society alone. They also think they are protecting the family from shame and stigma.”

After their daughter’s death last year, the Sarkis uncovered some answers. In their telling, their daughter — her lockdown days long and unscheduled — had been chatting regularly with a boy from a nearby village. The night she disappeared, she and a friend met the boy and his older brother at a shed in the fields. The boys raped the girls, Sarki says.

Because her attacker refused to marry her, Sarki’s daughter faced the prospect of a sullied reputation. “My daughter saw no other option than to commit suicide,” Sarki says. Months later, his wife struggles to eat and often bursts into tears. Sarki worries about leaving her to return to India for work. They turned their daughter’s room into storage for bags of maize, but kept her notebook of poems. On one page, she sketched a heart and printed in block letters, “Love.”

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ, translated interviews from Nepali.