Devanik Saha

On a cold December day in Jodhpur, 2014, Bhanu, 17, suddenly
collapsed. Her parents rushed her to the hospital where doctors said
their daughter—a married woman—had attempted suicide by swallowing
sleeping pills.

After the recent release of suicide data by the National Crime Records
Bureau (NCRB), the discourse has primarily focused on farmer suicides,
a politically-sensitive issue. But Bhanu’s case is a reminder that
little or no attention is focused on home-makers, a demographic more
prone to suicide than farmers.

Two years after her wedding in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, Bhanu (left),
then 17, swallowed sleeping pills and tried to kill herself. Kriti
Bharti (right), a psychologist, helped Bhanu (her name has been
changed for this story) annul her marriage to a 55-year-old barber,
who allegedly paid her grandfather a marriage fee of two lakh rupees.
Image source:

About 18% (20,412) of all suicides in 2014 were by housewives, against
4.3% (5,650) by farmers, according to the NCRB. There appears to be a
decline, overall, in home-maker suicides, but the data reveal two
things: one, a quiet, festering problem in Indian marriages and two, a
problem with the numbers.

P Sainath, journalist and Magaysasay award winner who pioneered
reporting on farm suicides, believes many women categorised as
“housewives” are farmers.

“Women farmers’ suicides are routinely undercounted because
conventional societies mostly do not acknowledge women as farmers,”
Sainath wrote this week. “And only a few have their names on title
deeds or pattas. One result of this is that the ‘housewives’ category
explodes in those years where states claim nil women farmers’
suicides. In some states, ‘housewives’ (including many who are farmers
but not acknowledged as such) make up 70 per cent of all women
suicides in some years.”

Even if that is wholly true, there is little question that thousands
of home-makers are indeed killing themselves, as IndiaSpend‘s
inquiries with psychiatrists and NGOs across the country confirmed.

How Bhanu went from 6th-standard dropout to teen bride

Bhanu, then 15, was married—against her wishes—to Ramchandra, 55, a
barber and farmer. Since Bhanu’s father was a poor barber in Ajmer, he
and his wife (Bhanu’s mother) handed over their daughter, and the
responsibility for her eventual marriage, to her grandfather in

Bhanu’s grandfather pressured Bhanu to drop out of school, abandon
studies and focus on learning housework, obviously in preparation for
marriage. Bhanu, then in class six, became a bride in waiting. Her
grandfather struck a wedding deal for Rs 2 lakh, without informing her

Bhanu was forcibly married, following an ancient tradition called
aamne samne ki shadi (literally, a wedding facing each other), where
families cement ties through marriage.

While Bhanu married Ramchandra, his niece, age 8, married Bhanu’s
35-year-old uncle. Since Bhanu’s parents and she were more than 480 km
apart, they did not hear about her marriage, until it was too late.

When Bhanu’s parents came to the eight-year-old’s wedding, they were
shocked, they said, to find wedding rituals underway for their
daughter as well. They protested and tried to file a police complaint.
The police refused, although the marriage was illegal (18 is the legal

“It was unimaginable for us that someone like her grandfather, whom we
trusted so much, had married her off in a deal,” said her father, who
requested that his name not be used. “It was quite shocking for us,
but somehow we controlled ourselves and approached Kriti for help.”

Determined to annul the marriage, Bhanu’s parents contacted Kriti
Bharti, a rehabilitation psychologist and founder of the Saarthi
Trust, an NGO in Jodhpur. Bharti helped them file a court case and
gain custody of their daughter. As the case was being tried, Bhanu’s
husband repeatedly tried to take her away by force, claiming she was
now his.

Do the data explain why home-makers commit suicide? Not quite

NCRB data on suicides and the attributed causes are not trustworthy
and detailed enough, said experts. The data do not reflect the fact
that suicide is not an event, but a complex interplay of factors.

Deaths in rural India are certified by village headmen
(“panchyatdars”), although cases are investigated by the police and
the process of registering a death is particularly inefficient in
rural areas, according to this study published in the Indian Journal
of Psychiatry

“When it comes to data regarding suicides and the reasons for it, NCRB
figures cannot be trusted at all,” said Vikram Patel, a psychiatrist
with extensive experience on suicide. “Given the complexity of
suicides, just listing single reasons for suicide is too simplistic.
Further, the police aren’t trained to handle suicide cases and
investigations and reporting is done randomly.”

Dr Rajesh Rastogi, Chief Psychiatrist at Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital,
agreed. “Just saying that dowry torture or domestic violence caused
depression for a woman to commit suicide is naïve,” he said.

“When the police investigate a matter, the reason that is the most
publicly visible is attributed as a cause for suicide,” said Kamna
Chibber, a clinical psychologist at Delhi’s Fortis Hospital. But that
is not usually the real cause.

IndiaSpend had reported previously on how the data on farmer suicides
are unreliable. That applies to home-maker suicides as well. Families
often do not report suicide.

“The stigma leads to under-reporting,” said Lakshmi Vijaykumar, a
psychiatrist and member of the World Health Organisation’s
International Network for Suicide Prevention & Research. “Many
families want to avoid harassment by the police and avoid social
ostracism, therefore, they never approach the police.”

What is driving housewives to suicide? Men play a big role

NCRB doesn’t give disaggregated causes data on housewives, only the
data for overall suicides.

Based on various psychiatrists’ and psychologists’ experiences, three
points stand out:

  1. Family background, past psychiatric history, genetic conditions and
    the immediate environment are significant factors.

  2. Issues such as marital dissatisfaction, torture for dowry, domestic
    violence and economic difficulties are only the triggers or, in
    medical terminology, “stressors”. While the occurrence of more
    stressors increases risk, their mere presence cannot cause suicide.

  3. India’s patriarchal society and stigma around women discussing
    depression and mental health issues play a significant role in
    increasing suicidal tendencies.

The cumulative and repetitive interaction of several factors in a
complex manner results in suicides, according to a psychological
autopsy study done in Bangalore, the only one on “completed
(successful) suicides” and domestic violence.

“Personal, biological and external environmental factors and the
ability to handle stress and depression play a huge role,” said Patel.

Many studies note that almost 80% of those who commit suicide have
depressive symptoms.

Rastogi explained it in simpler terms: Two friends are sitting in a
room and a snake enters. Person A is terrified to see the snake, but
person B has often stayed in rural areas and has killed many snakes.
He barely flinches and advances to shoo away the snake.

What he means is that people handle stress differently. While one
spouse may fight back against domestic violence and torture, another
may keep quiet and accept it as her fate.

“A woman commits suicide only when she is fully convinced that there
is no other way to reduce her drudgery. She feels that she is not able
to do anything to improve her situation,” said Chhibber.

Bhanu certainly felt that way. She told IndiaSpend that she was always
battling her 55-year-old husband Ramachandra.

“He constantly threatened me that he would take me with him forcibly,
but I didn’t want to go with him,” said Bhanu. “Even during court
sessions, he would intimidate me, which really scared me. I lost hope
that things would ever get fine. Hence, I decided to end my life.”

Patel said these were widespread fears. “Domestic violence (emotional
and physical), and economic difficulties are the major precipitating
factors for suicides by married women,” he said.

Women may have support from friends and family but may not have the
financial independence to end a marriage.

Why do so many wives aged 15-29 kill themselves?

Over the past four years, 43% of suicides by home-makers have been in
the 15-29 age group.

Suicides By Home-makers In The 15-29 Age Group (left) & As % Of All
Home-maker Suicides, 2010-13

IndiaSpend has reported previously how India has 36 million child
brides, despite laws prohibiting child marriages.

“This is the age group when the experiences associated with gender
disadvantage are the most common,” said Patel, a view echoed by

Bhanu was 15 years old when she was married against her wishes,
pushing her into deep mental conflict. Eventually, despite the support
of her parents, the teenager could not cope.

“Youth is the time when one is still trying to find one’s footing in
life… often due to an unsupportive environment or one’s own
personality traits, one is unable to achieve these milestones well and
soon enough in life. In such circumstances when trouble strikes, it
just becomes easier for one to collapse,” explained Sanjay Chugh, a
Delhi psychiatrist. “As we grow older, we become more mature… in times
of trouble, do have back up plans.”

Young brides get no allowances for the sudden burden of household
responsibilities. A time of discovery and aspiration, for many,
remains unfulfilled.

“It pressurises her immensely,” said Bharti, “leading to mental
imbalance and suicidal tendencies.”

Why aren’t housewives’ suicides discussed?

Farm suicides are widely discussed in India, but no one really talks
of housewives killing themselves.

“In our country, there is a stigma and fear surrounding mental health
and a stifling silence around any conversation pertaining to mental
illness,” said Kundu. “Even talking about it is taboo.”

“If we have a body part which is burnt, we like to hide it from others
because we believe that it can never heal,” said Bharti. “Similarly,
our society has already believed that the issue of women getting equal
rights and respect cannot be solved; therefore, these discussions
never happen. Until, we believe that we truly can solve this
situation, we can’t do anything.”

To Vijaykumar, the key point is political irrelevance. “It’s simple,”
she said. “Housewives’ suicides aren’t politically important, that’s
why politicians and experts don’t discuss it (the issue) much.”

Why decriminalising attempted suicide can help

India accounts for 21% of the global disease burden and is struggling
with high malnutrition and high infant- and maternal-mortality rates.
So, suicide has never been a significant public-health issue.

It does not help that India is short of mental-health professionals by
87%, according to data tabled in Parliament in 2013.

Last year, the Centre announced a plan to decriminalise attempted
suicide and scrap section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, which provides
for a year in prison and a fine for anyone attempting suicide.

The Law Commission of India’s 210th report also suggested removing
section 309, but there the matter rests.

Vijaykumar listed three benefits of this move:

  1. It will allow anyone who has attempted suicide to be treated
    immediately without the medico-legal process. This will also remove
    the stigma.

  2. It will be affordable for the family–private hospitals often
    overcharge to treat such patients, citing the legal process involved.

  3. It will help collect data on those who attempt suicide and plan
    services for them. These cases are often under-reported or reported as

“Rather than pressing charges against the victim, the focus should be
on prosecuting the person who compelled the victim to commit suicide.
The victim has already faced hardships and therefore, putting further
pressure on her is unfair.” said Bharti.

Back in Jodhpur, the police did not charge Bhanu with Section 309
because Bharti pressurised them not to, leaning on them, successfully,
to file a case of abetment to suicide (Section 306) against
Ramchandra. Much legal action depends on arbitrariness.

Bhanu, with Bharti’s help, is now preparing to appear for her class
ten examinations through the open-school system as a private
candidate, which means she does not have to complete previous classes.
She lives with her parents in Jodhpur, as her case meanders through
the city’s courts.

Bhanu’s experience has shaped her ambitions. “Kriti didi (Bharti) is
my idol, and I want to become a social worker like her,” said Bhanu.
Her ambition: To eventually urge and help girls forced into early
wedding to annul their marriages.

Bhanu is a pseudonym. We have not revealed her real name at her request