A means to an
poverty-reduction structures that solely depend on political patronage
worked in the developing world. Sri Lanka is no exception except
that a much-abused poverty reduction programme here seems to have
its good side too.
by the World Bank as only marginally helping the poor, earned praise
recently when the efforts of its officers were singled out as the
main reason for the suicide rate in Sri Lanka dropping by almost
half two years ago.
director of Sri Lanka Sumithrayo, a local unit of Befrienders International,
said that the number of suicides (8,500 deaths in Sri Lanka in 1995,
the highest in the world) dropped sharply to 4,995 in 2001 apparently
due to a series of government interventions.
I have no researched document to prove that the change in the suicide
statistics were because of these interventions, I have good reason
to believe that the commitment of the majority of trained Samurdhi
officers has indeed made the difference," she told a recent
national convention on suicide prevention in Colombo.
part of a global network that befriends troubled people and helps
them cope with crises. Ellawela has been working on suicide prevention
measures and other issues for more than 30 years and is a member
of the Task Force on Suicide Prevention set up by President Chandrika
Kumaratunga in 1995 to find ways of reducing the suicide rate.
are precipitated by love affairs, poverty, parental pressure on
marriage, unemployment, unwanted pregnancies, failure at examinations,
fear of punishment, inability to pay loans and in recent years,
women going to the Middle East to work leaving behind a host of
unresolved social problems.
however said that though the death rate had fallen, the number of
suicide attempts was still high and alarming. "The death rate
has fallen possibly due to better transport when taking victims
to hospital and good hospital management of the problem. But the
problem is still acute," noted Lakshmi Ratnayake, former head
of Sri Lanka Sumithrayo and now heading the agency's unit dealing
with rural communities.
She said although
there was no national data on the rate of attempted suicides (because
the police -the collector of such data in the country- only record
the number of deaths from suicides), suicidal behaviour in rural
communities still remains a problem.
currently involved in a study on the relationship between suicidal
behaviour and alcohol use in the Panduwasnuwara village in the country's
north-central region, said poverty was one of the reasons for attempting
talking of the poverty where one lacks the basic needs to sustain
life, like food, water and shelter that is to be seen in many rural
communities. It is difficult for urban dwellers like us to understand
this because our concept of poverty would be different," she
told the second national suicide convention organized by the Sri
Lanka Foundation Institute.
the ongoing study, Ratnayake said researchers interviewed 50 villagers
who had attempted suicide, and the families and friends of those
who had died, and found that women suffered the most. Of 23 attempts
by women, none died. The attempts were triggered by physical and
sexual assaults by husbands. The women were named and shamed in
men attempted suicide and four subsequently died. The research team
found that almost all these attempts were alcohol related. Ratnayake
said that alcoholism amongst women was not seen as a factor for
women attempting suicide.
from Lankan universities, studying the phenomena of suicides, found
that the community as a whole believed that suicide was an accepted
way of solving problems. "We often hear the comment 'there's
no point in living' by individuals in society when confronted with
problems," noted Dr. Damani de Silva, a psychiatrist at the
University of Colombo, who was in the three-member team leading
the research study.
More than 200
people were interviewed in the sample and it was found that some
of the ideas and values that encouraged this behaviour (apart from
the community endorsement) were; verbal or physical aggression being
seen as a way of resolving differences and societal explanations
for suicidal behaviour in instances where a psychiatric disorder
was a likely cause.
De Silva said
they found that women, who considered their role as homemaker a
key element of their duties, justified the abuse hurled by spouses,
as they felt responsible for everything that happened at home. "Some
women are trapped in gender related beliefs. They feel they are
objects to be used by men," she said adding that the suicide
rate among women is higher than in men.
She said some
of the interventions the study has recommended are de-institutionalizing
violence within structures like the family unit, schools and political
parties, urging mass media to promote the view that suicide is not
a way of solving problems and empowering women.
was also blamed for inadvertently promoting suicide by sensationalized
reporting and eye-catching newspaper headlines that create a copycat
syndrome. Here young people read and learn of ways of committing
suicide through newspaper reports. When faced with a personal crisis
they copy these methods of suicide.
well-known rights journalist and director of the media unit at the
Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), said that Sri Lankan media
seem unable or unwilling to explore the root causes of suicide.
This has resulted
in a media that is numb to the effects of irresponsible reporting,
he said, adding that in a study carried out with editors of newspapers
it was found that newspapers had no guidelines for reporters on
how to report suicides. "Every single article (that we monitored)
clearly showed the method used in the particular suicide. Mainstream
media show no interest in exploring the series of events that led
to the suicide and instead explain the suicide as a result of a
single event or at best, a simplistic chain of events," he
programme was recently criticized by the World Bank citing poor
targeting. It said there were many "affluent" recipients
in the programme because of their political affiliations while many
poor people were left out from the social welfare net, again due
to political reasons.
said some 450 Samurdhi officers showed exceptional commitment after
they were trained to implement the national suicide prevention policy
enunciated by the presidential task force.
being one of the biggest means of suicide, these officers were asked
to reduce easy access to poison whereby they visited chemical sales
outlets sensitizing traders and alerting farming communities on
safe storage. Kaneru, a poisonous fruit that grows wild in villages
and considered after pesticides as the most common means of suicide,
came under their scrutiny. They persuaded people to keep Kaneru
bushes well trimmed so that this fruit would not be readily available.
awareness programmes engaging the support of the media - by minimizing
irresponsible reporting through regular contacts with provincial
journalists - were some of the other initiatives taken. Medical
intervention was also important with Samurdhi officers creating
awareness among hospital staff to treat victims with care and not
we started working with Samurdhi officers, we were faced with a
problem. The community had little respect for these officers, as
they were political appointees. Our task was therefore to introduce
them to concepts of personal growth and help them to develop their
own coping skills and efficiency levels," she said.
In time these
officers responded to these goals and the peoples sense of
disillusionment and dissatisfaction in the recruits was seen to
the setting up of an independent centre for research and training
of educators for social well being that can deal with common social
concerns like suicide, child abuse, drug use, violence against women
and children, physical and mental disabilities, etc.
She said the
way forward was through research and it was time that "we"
move away from the compartmentalized approaches that have been adopted
in the past to tackle these issues.