*Editor’s Note: The article contains mentions of suicide. Reader discretion is advised.
Najma Bibi, a 21-year-old teacher hailing from the Awaran district of Balochistan, took her own life on May 15, 2023 by hanging herself in her house. The event, however, failed to surprise many as it was the 38th reported case of suicide out of a total of 51 cases in the province since January 2023.
According to the police report, known as the first information report (FIR), registered in Bibi’s case, she was harassed and blackmailed by an official of the levies force, a paramilitary gendarmerie in the province. Although the official inquiry into the case led to the suspension of the concerned official, it could not bring back the young teacher, one who had taken upon herself the responsibility of imparting education to more than 150 students free of charge.
Handwritten notes of Najma Bibi
Suicide – the act of taking one’s own life – is one of the leading causes of death across the globe. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 703,000 people die by suicide worldwide each year, making more deaths happening due to suicide as compared to diseases like Malaria, HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, or other phenomena like war and homicide.
WHO’s reports further suggest that more than one in every 100 deaths (1.3%) in 2019 resulted due to suicide.
Like the rest of the world, suicide rates are also witnessing a surge in Pakistan, especially in the impoverished southern province of Balochistan, which is already plagued with worsening law and order situations and political chaos.
According to independent data collected by The Khorasan Diary (TKD), almost 136 people have taken their own lives in Balochistan since 2003. Out of the total, 51 suicidal deaths took place in the last seven months of 2023, including five cases reported from the Dera Murad Jamali district on July 4, a well-informed source told TKD. Similarly, two other suicide cases were reported from the Awaran and Kohlu districts on July 9.
Data from the World Population Review shows that in Pakistan, the total suicide rate in 2023 was 8.9 percent per 100,000 people. Of these, 13.3 percent of the victims were male while 4.3 percent were female.
While many countries recognize that suicides could result from underlying factors, such as depression and other mental health disorders, Pakistan has criminalized the act. Two separate legislative bills to declare suicide as a mental health problem were rejected by the country’s Senate and religious parliamentary parties, who maintained that the act should remain punishable as it was forbidden in Islam.
Speaking to TKD about the criminalization of suicide in Pakistan, lawyer and rights activist Habib Kareem said that in Pakistan, the act of attempting to take one’s own life was criminalized under section 325 of the Pakistan Penal Code. This provision penalizing suicide attempts was abolished in December 2022 through Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill 2022.
“Criminalizing such an act did neither appeal to rationality nor it was in line with modern legal jurisprudence. Convicting someone who had attempted to commit suicide amounted to punishing him for his failure to die, which was ridiculous. So, abolishing this law was a progressive move by the parliament.,” said Kareem.
He further said that in conflict-ridden regions like Balochistan, suicide cases resulted from complex socio-cultural, economic, and political factors. Among these factors, politics was the least talked about one.
Some recent cases suggest that people died by suicide after facing traumatic experiences like continuous harassment, blackmailing, house raids, and other pressure tactics employed by different politically and socially backed forces.
One such case involved 39-year-old Bakhtiar Ali Umrani, who took his life because he could not pay back his loans.
“Such cases are rarely reported, and even when someone files a complaint, the police and the government-designated medico-legal-centres refrain from evaluating or registering the cases due to certain political and social pressures,” said Kareem.
Dr. Gulam Rasool, a prominent psychiatrist based in Quetta, Balochistan, told TKD that no one, including the government and other private organizations, has taken appropriate measures so far to tackle the increasing suicide cases in the province, and have failed to pay due attention to the statistics due to public outrage.
He further outlined the reasons behind suicide among women and said it was predominately linked to honour killings, domestic violence, and forced marriages.
While compiling this story, TKD observed that the suicide ratio among the female population was quite high compared to males in the province. It is worth noting that in females, the reasons behind suicides are often linked to societal and cultural pressures, including forced marriages, family issues, societal taboos, and domestic violence. These women are often trapped in a cycle of abuse and oppression, with little to no support or help available to them.
For instance, 23-year-old Saira* took her own life in October 2019 in the Kili Mengal Noshki locality of the province. Upon further investigation, a source from her native village revealed that her parents had forced her to marry against her will.
The source stated that the girl had confided in her friends from the village about her concerns regarding forced marriage. Meanwhile, district official sources, while talking to TKD, said that they did not have any proper mechanism in place to register such cases.
TKD’s investigation shows that a total of 51 suicide cases were reported in the last seven months of this year in different areas of Balochistan, including a case from the Huda Jail in Quetta. But Balochistan’s secretary of information, Hamza Shafqat, has expressed doubts about the accuracy of the reported number of suicide cases in the region, stating that there was a chance that the actual number was higher as not all the cases had been reported. He specifically drew attention to the Kech district, where he said “Only five cases were reported in March”.
Balochistan government on June 6, formed a committee to figure out emerging suicide cases until then there have been many cases across Balochistan. But the said committee has not submitted any report on the issue yet.
Asad Baloch, a journalist from Balochistan’s Kech district, told TKD that multiple cases of suicide had been reported in the region over the last two years but there was no entity – government or non-government – to maintain authentic data related to suicide cases.
Lack of facilities to deal with mental health issues
According to Dr. Rasool, psychological patients with illnesses such as bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PSTD), substance use disorder (SUD), personality disorders, anxiety, depression, and auditory hallucinations are at risk of taking their own lives.
He said that some physical illnesses such as cancer, long thoracic nerve palsy, diabetes, and certain psychological drugs used for physical illness can also precipitate suicidal thoughts, but in the province, there was not a single medical centre equipped with addressing mental health problems and guiding the public.
Explaining the psycho-social issues, he said that suicide was not an illness and was related to multiple factors, including different conflicts, educational issues, relationship issues, intimacy issues, financial issues, discrimination, insults, isolation, and suicide risks. He further added that lack of alternatives, hope, failure to achieve something in life, inability to take revenge, being stuck in one place, parental control failure in businesses, excessive drug use, and impulsiveness can all be significant sources of distress.
Another person from Balochistan, who identifies himself as a queer person, said that in patriarchal and conservative societies, parents often disregard their children’s medical abnormalities, which can lead to tragic outcomes, such as suicide.
The individual added that due to the lack of support from his parents, he experienced numerous traumatic events, including rejection and social isolation from family and friends, which led to suicidal thoughts. Fortunately, after seeking psychological consultation from Karachi, the therapist helped the person’s parents understand and respect their gender association.
Moreover, harassment, self-blame, and society’s hostile attitude towards strong and independent women can also lead to discouragement and suicidal thoughts. Anita Jalil, a well-known actress, blogger, and social activist from Balochistan’s Gwadar district, broke down while sharing her traumatic experience.
She revealed that she attempted to take her life twice due to the problems she had been facing in life. The first time, she made a suicidal attempt was when her mother died due to breast cancer in November 2015. According to Anita, she blamed herself and thought that she was the reason for her mother’s death.
This self-blame led her to lose her sleep and mental peace for two-and-a-half years. She ultimately visited a doctor for insomnia in her home district.
After a few days, the recommended pills stopped working, and she started overdosing on the tablets. Over the course of time, all the medicines stopped affecting her, which physically weakened her. Her father took her to a hospital in Karachi, where she was unconscious for two days. When she woke up, she found herself in a mental ward, where she had been admitted for a couple of days. At that point, she decided that she never wanted to go there again.
“I feel lucky to survive all of this trauma but I know that everyone is not this strong,” she said.
In response to the reporter’s question about the method used in suicide cases, Dr. Rasool told that it depends on the availability of weapons, poisonous substances, and aggression levels, adding that sometimes, awareness campaigns can also backfire.
Habib Tahir, Vice Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Balochistan Chapter, considered unemployment as one of the key factors behind the surge in suicide cases across Balochistan.
“Business opportunities are rare in the province; doctors, advocates, and other skilled people are unemployed. People in Balochistan are dependent on the border trade economy,” Tahir told TKD over the phone.
“The government must regulate Pak-Iran and Pak-Afghan borders and open markets in the bordering districts to curb unemployment in the province.”
Rising militancy and its effect on young people’s mental health
Facing unrest and security-related challenges in the region for the past two decades, the youth of the province many times find themselves being dragged into serious interrogations and investigations that leave a sense of hatred, grudge, and rebellious behaviour toward society at large.
“I agree. Balochistan’s law and order situation has caused psychological distress for everyone, especially the Baloch youth caught up between militants and the military. Other issues like poverty and unemployment exacerbate the distress,” said Kiyya Baloch, an independent journalist tracking violence in Balochistan.
Unfortunately, issues in Balochistan receive attention only when their impacts become severe and affect a large section of society or economic plans. Individual suicide cases are not a concern for the government, opposition, and media due to many unsaid reasons.
TKD approached the spokesperson of the Balochistan government, Farah Azeem Shah, multiple times over the phone for comments on the issue but she did not respond.
*Names of some victims have been changed to protect privacy.