September 10 marked the observance of World Suicide Prevention Day, an initiative which began in 2003 to shed light on the critical issue, diminish societal stigma, and heighten awareness. The theme since 2021, ‘Creating Hope Through Action,’ aims to inspire hope and bolster preventive measures.
In India, the day calls for attention once again to the frequently overlooked problem of suicide among housewives. Ever since India began categorising suicide data by occupation, housewives have consistently ranked among the top two groups. This trend held true for 2021, the most recent year for which data are available.
Table 1 | The table shows the year-wise share of housewives in the total female suicides.
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The number of women who died by suicide in India reached a peak of 45,026 in 2021. More than half of them were housewives (Table 1).
The share of housewives in total female suicides has remained above the 50% mark for several years now. The share of housewives in overall suicides too has remained around the 15% mark for many years. Notably, as shown in Table 2, over 30% of all suicides (men and women) were due to issues relating to family or marriage.
Table 2 | The table shows the year-wise share of suicides with family problems/ marriage as a reason
In general, across years, economically better States in the south featured on top of the list of suicide rates. In 2021, among the major States, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, and Karnataka featured at the top of this list. In 2016, Peter Mayer noted in the Economic and Political Weekly that a similar trend held even if the suicide rates of housewives alone were considered. His paper suggests that shifting expectations around social roles, particularly post-marriage, could be a contributing factor. In the South, where female literacy rates are comparatively high and women have greater access to mass media, there tends to be a clash between modern perspectives and traditional societal norms. In contrast, the pushback against traditional expectations is less pronounced in the north, partly due to lower levels of exposure among women.
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The National Family Health Survey (2019-21) highlights the challenging circumstances faced by married women, including limited mobility, restricted financial autonomy, and marital control, as well as physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at the hands of their spouses. It also shows that many women seldom seek external assistance and endure the attack on their freedoms in silence. Additionally, the data show that women in the lowest income bracket experience greater levels of violence and less freedom compared to those from wealthier households.
Table 3 | The table shows the share of married women aged 18-49 whose husbands had demonstrated specific types of controlling behaviour, across wealth quintiles, in 2019-21.
At least one in four married women in the poorest 20% of households said her husband did not allow her to meet her female friends, insisted on knowing where she was all the time, exhibited jealousy or anger if she talked to other men, and did not trust her with money. The shares were relatively low in richer households.
Table 4 | The table shows the share of married women aged 18-49 whose husbands demonstrated specific types of controlling behaviour, across wealth quintiles in 2019-21
Table 4 shows that 35% of married women in the poorest 20% of households had faced physical, emotional or sexual violence, and less than half of them had sought help (mostly from friends and family and rarely from authorities). The share of those who experienced violence was much lower in richer households. Also, many in richer households who did experience violence sought help.
Table 5 | The table shows shared of married women who have financial freedom and freedom of mobility, across wealth quintiles in 2019-21
Table 5 shows that less than 40% of married women in the poorest quintile said that they could visit places such as markets alone. A slightly higher share of them said that they had money which they could decide how to use.
Source: National Crime Records Bureau’s ‘Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India’ report and the National Family Health Survey (2019 – 21)