The silent suicides of Pakistan

Most cases are not reported owing to taboos, fear of harassment, social stigma and complicated legal procedures
The silent suicides of Pakistan

Shan Masih at Mayo Hospital in Lahore on Jan. 25. He died the next day from his injuries after setting himself on fire following the loss of his job as a sanitary worker. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry/UCA News)

Shan Masih set himself on fire after losing his job as a sanitary worker. The 24-year-old died 10 days later.

“He was a simple boy who loved flying kites and playing with his friends. I stopped him twice that day from dousing himself with petrol,” his mother Razia Siddique, a maid, told UCA News while wiping away tears.

“His elderly father was also terminated the same day without notice. He became very silent. We were all upset. All my three children dropped out of school in primary education. We eat whatever we earn.”

Masih was one of 16 Christian workers terminated by Town Municipal Administration on Jan. 15 in Muridke city, near Lahore. All were employed to sweep roads on a contractual basis. 

Still, the family whitewashed their small house for Masih’s engagement planned for later this month.

Siddique was on her doorstep when she heard the cries of her eldest son. “I rushed inside and he was engulfed in flames. I started screaming. My sister got a bed sheet and quickly wrapped it around him. He was yelling asking us to pour water on him,” she said.

Masih was admitted to a local hospital the same day. Christian sanitary workers later staged a demonstration outside the municipal administration office.

Punjab Human Rights and Minorities Affairs Minister Ijaz Alam Augustine asked Muridke hospital administration to move Masih to a Lahore hospital. He assured the community “that stern action would be taken against those responsible for the incident and the rights of minorities would be protected at any cost.”

Shunila Ruth, a Christian member of the National Assembly, visited Masih and his family last week at Mayo Hospital in Lahore.

“This is very unfortunate. Suicide is a sin in both Christianity and Islam. I asked Masih to pray for Allah’s forgiveness,” she said.

“Following consultations with the assistant commissioner of Muridke, all terminated sanitary workers have been reinstated. The commissioner claimed that the workers were repeatedly warned of irregular holidays, but we are trying to improve the system of termination.”

Suicide is a criminal offense in Pakistan. According to Section 325 of the Penal Code, those attempting suicide can either be imprisoned for one year or fined or both.

However, most cases are not reported owing to taboos, fear of harassment, social stigma and complicated legal procedures.

According to the World Health Organization, 15 to 35 people commit suicide in Pakistan each day, while 5,500 suicide cases were recorded in 2016.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has cited family pressures, crime, injustice, intolerance, socioeconomic reasons and poverty as the major reasons for suicide.

The State Bank of Pakistan stated recently that during the first quarter of the current fiscal year inflation reached its highest level for the last seven years.

Ruth, a lawmaker of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government, blamed the previous government for stoking inflation by breaking all previous records of taking foreign loans.

“Their mafia is creating this hype of inflation. The poor should head to utility stores for groceries at affordable prices. We have launched a crackdown on hoarders and a monitoring system to check prices. Peace is returning as counter-terrorism operations have made it difficult for terrorist groups to carry out large-scale suicide attacks,” she said.

Despite her claims, a suicide bomber struck a mosque in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta on Jan. 10, killing 15 people and injuring 19. According to a study by the Islamabad Policy Institute, four suicide attacks occurred last year, while 11 were reported in 2018.

Razia Siddique, the mother of Shan Masih, speaks to her brother at Mayo Hospital on Jan. 25. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry/UCA News)

Church response

Psychiatrists say 33 percent of Pakistanis suffer from depression and anxiety.

Caritas Pakistan Islamabad-Rawalpindi psychologist Iram Waris claims religious people can play a bigger role in counseling people who face religious discrimination daily.

“The community listens more to priests and nuns than professional psychologists. Religious can use social media and awareness seminars to counsel youth. Males needs more attention as they use lethal methods for successful suicides. Women are more likely to attempt suicide but have a better chance of surviving,” Waris said.  

Media reports show that over 1,300 people committed suicide in Sindh province in the last five years.

Bishop Samson Shukardin of Hyderabad Diocese, which covers most of the southern province, blamed early marriages and forced conversions as the main reasons. 

“Poor families and victims lose hope due to the dominant feudal system in remote areas. The Church runs schools in areas where there are no government schools. Education can defeat this ongoing issue. The local churches focus more on hope in their homilies,” he said.

“The Catholic Church sets 18 years as the marriageable age for girls and boys to avoid post-marriage complications, but tribal Christians resort to bhagats (elders) for child marriages.”

Cecil Chaudhry, executive director of the National Commission of Justice and Peace, a human rights body of the Catholic Church, condemned the maltreatment of religious minorities in government hospitals.

“The family of Shan Masih kept complaining of being ignored by doctors. Even when doctors do their rounds at the burns unit, relatives are forced to leave their critical loved ones,” he said. 

“The conditions in government hospitals raise questions about the sacred profession. We have witnessed religious biases dominate the love for humanity and the Hippocratic Oath in our country. Accountability mechanisms can help in saving precious lives.”

In 2017, Irfan Masih, another Christian sanitation worker, died in a government-run hospital in Umerkot town of Sindh province after being denied timely treatment by Muslim doctors who were fasting and refused to touch his filthy body.

In a Jan. 19 press release, HRCP linked sanitation workers’ conditions to suicide attempts. “Our sources allege that arbitrary layoffs and the non-payment of wages have continued for months. This is taking a brutal toll on a section of the workforce that is often considered invisible despite providing vital labor,” said chairperson Mehdi Hasan.

The commission also condemned “the indifference of the federal and provincial governments, and of municipal corporations, to such workers who consistently face hazardous working conditions. HRCP aims to work closely with sanitation workers’ associations across the country, and demands that their grievances are heard and redressed fairly and promptly. Sanitation work demands the same dignity and welfare benefits as any other occupation.”

Government departments employ most sanitation workers on a temporary contract of 89 days or as daily wage workers.

A recent study titled "Shame and Stigma in Sanitation," based on interviews with more than 100 sanitation workers, claimed that 98 percent of non-regular employees fear they can lose their jobs at any time.

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