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Illustration by Marium Ali
Illustration by Marium Ali

Two years ago, early one morning, eighteen-year-old Maryam Gul received a disturbing call from her friend Alisha. Take my books and notebooks, Alisha said. She told Maryam she will no longer be able to attend school. Panicked, Maryam asked the reason behind this sudden decision. Alisha explained between sobs: “I have been sold to an old man in a city far from our village.”

The very next day, Alisha’s body was recovered from the Kunhar River near Booni village in Upper Chitral.

The Kunhar River flows through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, originating at Lulusar Lake and joining the River Jhelum just outside Muzaffarabad. It is now referred to by the locals in Khowar language as ‘khoondaar seen’: the blood-thirsty river. A retired police officer, requesting anonymity, claims that the suicide rate among young women in Chitral stands at 60 per year, including both registered and unregistered deaths — the highest in the entire region in a single district, let alone the country.

The rising suicide rate among Chitrali girls points to a troubled society and a clash of traditions and hopes

“Three of my classmates have committed suicide due to marriage against their will,” Maryam tells Eos, as her eyes fill with tears. “Sometimes, I fear that my parents might do the same to me but my father loves me a lot as I am his only daughter.”

She herself aspires to become a social activist “to save girls from taking such extreme measures.” She is enrolled in a local college for an intermediate degree. “The story of my friends who sadly ended their lives is no different from the hundreds of young women who have committed suicide owing to various reasons,” she says.

Eighteen-year-old Alisha was a dreamy-eyed, lively girl. She aspired to soar the skies and become a pilot. Often she would try and motivate her friends at school to decide their careers too, so that they could prepare themselves to achieve their goals. However, all her dreams were shattered when her mother, Kareema Bibi, broke the news to her that her father had given Alisha’s hand in marriage to a 56-year-old man in Karachi, without her consent. Such arrangement of marriage is common for people of Chitral. Alisha may have expected it to happen to her one day but that the day would come so soon was something she was not prepared for. She was not ready for life to change so drastically at her young age.

Eighteen-year-old Aima Akbar, a resident of Chumurkon village in Lower Chitral, on the outskirts of Chitral town, too, would have liked to have a career like her classmates. If she was able to score high marks in her secondary school examination, she planned to become a doctor. But according to her older brother, Kabeer, Aima’s results in 2016 did not match her ambitions. Shocked at her scores, she silently left the house and never returned.

Her parents thought she might be spending time with her friend and classfellow who lived in the neighbourhood. But Aima had hid herself in a dark corner of a green field near her house, grieving over her exam results, thinking her life was as good as over. Alone in the field, she consumed pesticides.

“At around 9 pm, we found out that she had killed herself. The entire family was shocked and grieved,” Kabeer recalls. “Since then, two boys and three girls from our village have committed suicide over petty issues.”

A year ago, Shah Zareen, a resident of Meragaram village in Upper Chitral got a text message from her fiancé: “See your marks,” it said, ”it means you are not my worthy. I am seriously thinking over the matter of breaking my engagement with you. You had promised you would fetch excellent marks in your intermediate examination but you put me to shame.”

Only a short while after receiving the message, she hurried out of her home and flung herself in the roaring river, not far from her home.

According to Zareen’s brother, Ismail Wali, his sister’s fiancé only meant to send the text in jest. “My beloved sister was a quiet and withdrawn girl. Being helpless, my parents decided to forgive the culprit as he is our close relative. Also we did not take [the news] to the media or police to save our family honour,” he maintains.

A survey carried out by a local civil society organisation claims that 90 percent of the precious lives of young girls end in the Kunhar River. Over the past decade-and-a-half, the number of young girls drowning themselves in the river runs in several hundreds, local sources estimate.

“Most cases are not registered and are unreported in the media to save the so-called family honour because it is a stigma and social taboo,” the police official tells Eos. “The victims’ families often remain tight-lipped about the real reasons behind the suicide. In a majority of the cases, parents and elders call it an ‘accident’.”

For most young girls, jumping into the fast-flowing river is the final resort to end their troubles as there is no chance of survival. Others have hung themselves from ceilings or consumed pills or pesticides to end their lives.

Locals working in the area for various social and human rights organisations believe there are different factors responsible for this alarming situation in an otherwise peaceful district where the crime ratio is very low. Among the reasons were marriage against will, extreme poverty, lack of legal and family support and mental sickness caused by paucity of minerals in the body, which causes depression. These young girls find it difficult to cope with crises, according to Rahim Shehzad, a resident of Ayun village in Chitral.

According to data collected from sources of the District Police Officer (DPO) and District Headquarter (DHQ) hospital in Chitral, last year, around 40 suicide cases were registered — mostly from Upper Chitral — while the document showed the number of suicide cases from January 2018 to August 2018 were about 22 from almost every part of the district Chitral.

The Aga Khan Health Services Pakistan (AKHSP) working in different localities of Chitral and Gilgit received about 264 patients of depression from January to December in 2017. Dr Qadra Nisa, head of the AKHSP centre in Chitral, says that the number of patients has reduced considerably due to the counselling services they provide in different areas of the district. The AKHSP provides tele-psychiatry counselling services to patients in district Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan due to the inaccessibility to these far-flung areas.

“Our organisation provides counselling services for youngsters through video in Rech, Herchine, Bang and Chuinj in Upper Chitral, and in Lower Chitral areas including Arkari, Susoom, Parabak and Garam Chashma,” Nisa says.

“The problem is that parents never disclose the real reason behind the suicide of their children,” she explains. “Exposure to social media and several other factors could be a reason for the rising suicide trend as these young people develop high hopes and ambitions for their lives but the local culture and norms frustrate them. There is an intense need for coordinated efforts to address this serious issue,” Nisa stresses.

Academic pressures, joblessness and lack of cooperation from parents, as well as their insensitivity to children’s wishes regarding life partners are the biggest problems that the youth in Chitral grapple with.

In Drosh village, some 45 km from main Chitral city, a young boy cut his life short when he got his exam results. Bakht Zameen, the father grieving his young son’s suicide, speaking to Eos recalls, “My son [Wajid] was a promising boy. He used to work late into the night but owing to his unexpected score in the recent exams, he was disheartened and ended his life by hanging himself in his room.” With tears in his eyes, he explains that one his friends working in Dubai had offered to help Wajid get a foreign scholarship in Dubai if he could score 80 per cent marks in 12th-grade exams.

Muhammad Ali Mujahid, an activist from Chitral, conducted a day-long seminar in Upper Chitral on the issue of suicide in November last year. He believes that so far no serious work has been done to probe the real reasons or find solutions to the problem of young people — mostly girls — committing suicide. “The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government should come forward with a team of stakeholders to solve the issue,” he suggests. “As a preventive measure, the Chitral district government could arrange a kind of safety guard and alert system alongside the Chitral River,” he says, to keep watch on the spots along the river where there is greater possibility of such incidents.

Abdul Wali Khan, an advocate and member of the KP Bar Council emphasises how the ratio of suicide among girls in Chitral district is alarming compared to other KP districts. This is a pressing issue which needs to be addressed immediately, he says. “A safe home, or shelter, in the district to provide legal assistance for young women to prevent marriages against their will might make a difference since marriage against will is the most common reason for suicide.” Women can ask for medico-legal assistance if they face domestic issues including violence, harassment or marital issues, etc. About six such functional Darul Aman are located in KP — in Peshawar, Abbottabad, Swat, Mardan, Manshera and Haripur districts. The shelter homes provide institutional-cum-residential care for destitute women and those who leave their homes, in order to help rehabilitate and re-adjuste such women in society and impart vocational training and income-generating skills to them.

The women who are victims of violence in KP, including those suffering domestic violence, physical, psychological abuse, rape, swara and vanni (the two customary practices of forced marriage), are accommodated in these shelters.

Khan also recommends that a medico-legal team comprising academics, community elders, psychiatrists and religious scholars should visit the educational institutes in Chitral and meet community members in order to work towards bringing an end to this grim trend among young Chitralis.

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 16th, 2018