Demographic, Environmental,
Security Issues Project

Social, Political Factors Driving Up Gaza Suicide Rate

by Asya Abdul Hadi

from Palestine Report, May 2, 1997

Gaza City -- Suicide has always been secret, a taboo, in Gaza as in most conservative societies. But recent Palestinian police and psychiatric centres' reports show a rise in suicide deaths and attempts. Police say 14 people tried to end their lives in March (two succeeded), a very high rate for the 1 million population of Gaza.

Psychologists attribute the rising suicide rate to the deteriorating economic and political conditions in Gaza, but agree that medical studies are necessary to verify an increase. "It is difficult to judge the suicide attempt cases until surveying a sample of those who tried to commit suicide," said Samir Qouta, a psychologist at the Gaza Community Mental Health Program.

But scientifically, he said, the main reason for committing suicide is depression. Qouta observed that men have a higher record of suicide deaths than women, who have more suicide attempts than deaths.

In addition to the bad economic and political factors, the social pressures of a patriarchal society appear to be the main cause of suicide attempts among women in a patriarchal society. "Culture is permanent," he explained. "The problem is that we live a conflict of traditions and women are bound up in ideas of honor and therefore are vulnerable to the conflict."

A good example is the case of a woman who called herself M.B. M.B. suffered domestic violence and sexual abuse all her life. She lives with 17 family members including her widowed aunt, grandmother, stepmother, parents and 13 brothers and sisters in a three-room house. She said she had been subjected to severe beating from her aunt and sexual abuse from her elder brother since she was five years old. Amidst such hostile conditions M.B managed to finish high school, but she was forbidden from pursuing higher education in a Ramallah community college or studying nursing at one of the Gaza hospitals.

M.B, now 24, first tried to commit suicide when she was 17. "That day I was beaten severely by my aunt who cursed me with improper words. When my father blamed her, she attacked him and spit in his face. At that moment I wanted to close my eyes and forget the world around me. So I locked myself into a room and drank rat poison," she recalled. M.B was rescued by her sister who had found her suffering from severe cramps and lapsing into unconsciousness.

During her 35-day stay in al-Shifa Hospital, a man approached her with an offer of marriage. M.B accepted the proposal, determined to get away from her intolerable home. But only three months later he started to ask for divorce. She had sex with him only few times. "I felt he scared me. I hated him. I never enjoyed sex with him. I felt he was raping me," she said. "He used to beat me to force me to have sex with him. One night in December he beat me up with an electric cord, pulled my hair and pushed me outside the room," she recalled.

One night M.B ran away to her parents house, but her father hit her in the face to force her to go back to her husband. "I was unconscious for 40 days," she said. M.B said she had been treated by psychologists and religious sheikhs for three years. Eventually, she divorced her husband to return to the domestic violence and sexual abuse at her parents' home.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women have stories like M.B. but such incidents are kept quiet in Gaza; women are frightened or ashamed to come forward with their stories. Social pressure, like that on M.B., combined with public despair over the worsening political and economic situation, can only increase the level of suicides, doctors say.

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