Awakening to Tragedy Among Young Female South Asians

Commentary, Immigration, Aruna Papp

The murder trial in Kingston, Ontario, for the four Shafia women has brought cultural conflicts leading to the death of innocent children at the hands of family members to the front door of every Canadian once again. But the phenomenon of suicide among young South Asian women remains unexplored.

Suicide rates in Canada are higher than in Australia, the US and the UK. Those who attempt suicide once are 30% 40% at risk of attempting is again. Added to the hardship they bring, they cost millions in direct and indirect financial loss. Among those at high risk are young South Asian immigrant women due to increased cultural conflict with their parents. Kwame McKenzie, Senior Scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, has stated that "women from the South Asians diaspora are at high risk of suicide– but are less likely to have the common warning signs– and so suicide prevention is more difficult.”

What plagues the South Asian community has significance for the wider Canadian population. Immigrants with origin in the Indian sub-continent make up the second-largest non-European ethnic group in Canada. They are 3% of the total majority born outside of Canada. By 2017 it is estimated that this population could more than double from roughly 1.3 million in 2006 to between 3.2 million and 4.1 million.

While there is a great cultural and educational diversity among the South Asian, patriarchal family structure is common to the large majority.  In this collective family structure the needs of groups are more important than those of individuals, especially young girls.  Girls learn at an early age that they are the property of the patriarch until they marry, and then they will belong to their husbands. Their marriage will be arranged and until then they must remain chaste, and after marriage they must protect their virtue. Within this restrictive world, many immigrant girls growing up in Canada struggle to find a place for themselves in mainstream society while maintaining their parent’s cultural traditions.  Many challenge the old traditions and become victims of honour based violence as in the case of Aqsa Parvez, 16, and the Sharifa sisters.  Many others are taken to the old country, forced to marry and never heard from again.

Normally, a history of a suicide attempt in the general population includes past or existing psychiatric symptoms, depression, drug and alcohol dependency, and factors such as social isolation and unemployment. In addition, there is substantial evidence indicating that among the young South Asian immigrant women who harm themselves, cultural conflict is a major precipitating factor.

Cultural rules and values shape the dynamics of shame used against females in many patriarchal cultures, forcing them into subordination, which in turn lead to depression and suicide attempts. Social groups define what is shameful or unacceptable behaviour, but what is unacceptable in one culture may not be in another. The dynamic of shame and stigma is often linked with the determination of those in control to maintain their power. Part of a solution must be the examination and unmasking of those who control and define cultural values within families.

After decades of ignoring the problem of young British female citizens of South Asian descent who were disappearing, the UK the government created a state agency called The Forced Marriage Unit. It received approximately 1,700 enquiries in 2010 and dealt with 469 forced marriage cases within the country through civil means. Canada should look at this model.

Those of us working in the front line, teachers, settlement workers, counsellors and therapist are challenged constantly with cases of young girls being pulled out of school and disappearing but there is no concerted effort to document how many young Canadian girls have disappeared or systematic documentation on self-harm, suicide or suicide attempts. 

Fear of offending someone, or fear of being branded racist often prevent those in power to assist these young women, but compromising young girls’ lives and their safety for the sake of an ideological notion of diversity must not continue. 

Canadians are being forced to come to grips with thorny cultural questions about which there are no easy answers. But as a survivor of forced marriage and abuse, I am convinced that safety in one’s home is a basic human right that needs protection.  The Shafia women cannot speak for themselves, but there are thousands more who need to be protected from the harming hands of others, and from their own.