New Delhi,by Deepanjana Pal Aug 28, 2014:- On August 25th, Madhu and Nikita went to the coaching class they go to, but they didn’t come home. At the coaching institute, they both downed drinks that they had poisoned and even though the staff rushed them to the hospital, the girls died. They’d left behind letters explaining why they’d killed themselves.
Both suicide notes explained they were being ‘eve teased’ and they feared that the harassment would bring dishonour to their families. “I have no option left except die,” wrote Nikita. She was 17. Madhu was 16.
There was more. Nikita’s suicide note doubled up as a will:
“I had planned to buy a T-shirt for Chhoti… for which I have saved Rs 200. I have kept that money in a bangle box in the first drawer. Please buy her the T-shirt she likes. I know she will look very smart… I am also leaving my wrist watch for Bhai. Please ask him to wear it each time he goes for an exam or interview.”
Madhu’s letter contained the name of a man who had harassed the now dead girl and his bike’s registration number – information that would be required to file a police complaint.
Had the girls actually opted to take their harassers to task legally, the men would probably have been charged with Section 294 of the Indian Penal Code, which says those found guilty would be "punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three months, or with fine, or with both."
Whether or not you think that’s harsh punishment for following a girl around and making lewd comments, there’s no arguing that a fine and possibly three months’ imprisonment is trivial in comparison to death, which is what the girls sentenced themselves to for being the target of the men’s attention.
At 17 and 16, we expect children – boys and girls – to be at their angriest. We expect them to rebel and find ways to stick their tongues out at society’s notions of maturity. If they’re feeling suicidal, we expect them to listen to morbid songs or in the worst case scenario, make badly-thought out plans to end their lives. At ages 17 and 16, we don’t expect someone to be so full of despair that they will calmly, miserably and meticulously plan and execute a suicide successfully.
To many, Nikita and Madhu's decision to commit suicide may seem like too dramatic a reaction. You glimpse this in the news item that reported this tragic incident. The article says,
In their suicide notes — one runs into six pages, the other is four-page long — the girls speak of fear and shame, of disrepute, of tongues wagging simply because young men had been following and harassing them. [emphasis: mine]
The word “simply” is telling of how normal we think sexual harassment of girls in public places is. It also suggests that suicide is an extreme reaction.
There are hundreds of cases from all over the country which show that the aggression glimpsed in the kind of harassment that’s euphemistically described as ‘eve teasing’, can easily escalate to take monstrous proportions. Women and girls who protest against public harassment often become targets of acid attacks and other violent crimes. (Seehere and here and here, for examples.)
However, in this particular case, matters hadn’t reached that stage. The girls were being pursued by men who made rude comments and loudly “offered” their phone numbers to the girls in public. The men were creating a spectacle that didn't just turn the girls into sex objects, but also branded them as ‘available’. In their suicide notes, the girls write that people stared at them on the street and the girls themselves were mortified. “You know how bad our colony is… how people will say we encouraged these men to follow us… even though we are innocent,” wrote Madhu.
The only recourse Nikita and Madhu could think of was suicide, which is a painfully glaring indicator of how differently sexual harassment is seen by victims, perpetrators and observers. The perspective of the observer is evident from the use of the word “simply” in the news report quoted earlier. We don’t know what the men thought of their behaviour, but chances are that they didn’t take it too seriously. They were ‘boys being boys’.
For Nikita and Madhu, there were serious consequences to the boys ‘having a bit of fun’. The girls didn’t see suicide as their only option because they felt personally victimized. It was the muck that the men's crassness spattered upon the girls' families that drove them to kill themselves.
Traditionally, the honour of an Indian family has rested upon its pedigree and its offspring, both boys and girls. While boys bring shame or pride by their actions, it’s a little different for girls. Of course what a daughter does adds to or takes away from a family’s reputation, but how she is seen by others is also critically important. From the fact that“family problems” is the most-cited cause of suicides in India, the institution that’s supposed to be the crown jewel of Indian culture is clearly not working very well for many of us.
Of the 1,41,283 women who died of unnatural causes last year, 444, 256 committed suicide, making suicide the number one cause of unnatural deaths in the country. Nikita and Madhu adding to this year’s statistics is particularly unsettling because there’s a fair amount of stigma attached to suicide. It means scandal that the family has to weather and both girls would have been aware of this. Yet the reaction to their deaths seemed less damaging to them than what they feared would come of the girls staying alive and perhaps continuing to be harassed. So they meticulously planned their last moments – from writing lengthy explanations to procuring toxic chemicals and finally, committing the tragic act in a place that wasn’t home. This was their way of protecting their families’ honour.
It begs the question of how we’re raising girls and why they don’t have better coping mechanisms. Why is suicide, the leading cause of death among women aged between 15 and 49, considered the only way out for so many? It’s easy to understand why going to the police didn’t seem like an option. Across the country, the police are notorious for being unwilling to take such complaints seriously. Even if the police had been sympathetic and charges were pressed, the worst that could have happened to the men is three months in jail. Then they’d be back on the streets, ready to attack Nikita and Madhu, and perhaps more viciously than before.
But is that reason enough to make suicide seem like a sensible option? Tackling gender issues is not simple, but neither is suicide. Why was there nothing around them that made Nikita and Madhu think living would the better way to respond to the problem they were facing? It’s tempting to consider Nikita and Madhu exceptions, but for the statistics that show suicide being the chosen option for so many in the country who face “family problems”.
In his book Raising Girls, child psychologist Steve Biddulph wrote,
Your daughter needs to know she is part of a bigger story; a fight that has been fought on her behalf, long before she was born, and that she needs to keep fighting.
Perhaps we’re just not telling enough stories of strength and survival, or maybe the heroines who inspired earlier generations seem defanged today. Perhaps we need new stories in which heroes and heroines recognize despair but don’t become its prey. Whatever is causing this toxic sadness to well within our daughters, we would be wise to recognise it's there and find ways to combat it.
The suicide statistics as well as Nikita and Madhu’s deaths show that our daughters don’t feel that they have what it takes to keep fighting. No matter how loudly we may outrage or how many candle marches we organize, that despair is the battle half lost.