Reeling into the cycle

September 1, 2008

Tahmina Shafique and Sharmin Chowdhury investigate the growing trend of suicides committed by female students of Dhaka University which has compelled the authorities to hire professional counsellors

photo by Momena Jalil

There is a damp and bleak air within the hall that houses hundreds of female students at the Dhaka University.

The long corridors lead to a row of rooms – each about 22 square metres in size and four seated. Apart from four beds the rooms are equipped with four desks and four closets. Most of the rooms are overcrowded, scantily furnished and damp. Outside, female students laze around at the open space throughout the afternoon some chatting away about the recent fashion and films, some hide themselves within the textbooks, and others chat on their cell phone. Inside the hall, at the far end of the corridor, is the room where about three months ago, a student hanged herself from the ceiling fan.

‘It’s still difficult to walk past that room where Sandhya hung herself,’ says a student. ‘It’s still difficult to deal with the feeling that something that might have subjected her to take away her own life will spare me or so many of us around. When I take a step forward, my body seems to stand still and invade me with these sinking thoughts.’

While University authorities have rested on the recent appointment of four counsellors to help these students- the students and teachers seem to be still reeling in the aftermath of what appears to be the fourth student suicide in about eighteen months at Dhaka University female halls.

‘Even though months have passed by, its still gives me nightmares,’ says a student of Rokeya hall, one of the four female hostels at Dhaka University. The suicides of these girls continue to haunt their room-mates and after every suicide the rooms are usually abandoned and then re-allotted to new students who have no connection with the incidents. ‘That is exactly how life revolves around the suicide incidents in the halls of DU,’ she adds.

On April 15 this year, Sandhya Rani Sarker hung herself from a ceiling fan inside her room at the Begum Rokeya Hall. She was a fourth year student of the Institute of Education and Research (IER). ‘She was so bright and wonderful, I do not know where she went wrong,’ says her friend, still disoriented. Sandhya, who hailed from Khulna, was found hanging from the ceiling fan at 2:30pm inside her room No 80 of the extension building of Rokeya hall.

According to her friends, the door of the room was locked from inside and the reasons for her death was unknown and till date a mystery.

Following her death, on June 25, Zohra Khan Progya, also a resident of Rokeya Hall, committed suicide. She was a second year student of law at the university. She was the daughter of Nazimuddin Khan, a teacher of Berua Alia Madrassah and resident of Azmatpur village in Kaliganj upazila of Gazipur, hall authorities said.

Reports suggest that Zohra had a brilliant academic record with GPA 5 in both SSC and HSC examinations. A number of residents of the dormitory said that she was quiet and unassuming and did not exhibit any troubles. They said she used to talk a lot over the cell phone with someone for some days and suspected that she might have a love affair with a Hindu boy and troubles with that affair may have led her to suicide.

‘She returned to the dormitory from home on Saturday and was looking normal and the next morning she was found dead,’ whispers one of the students.

The trend of suicides has been alarmingly on the rise specifically among Dhaka University students, the largest and the top public university in the country that houses more than 32,000 students. The impact of such frequent deaths has been felt deeply by the students and staff members. In the past five year, reports suggest that more than 11 students have committed suicide, nine of whom where women.

This past month, following the suicide of four Dhaka University students in the Rokeya hall in just one and a half year, the University authorities stepped up to take a much needed and long overdue step – appointing psychiatric consultants to each of the four female dormitories of the university to counsel the students.

According to the university vice-chancellor, SMA Faiz, the increasing cases of such suicides among the Dhaka University students, especially female students, had prompted them to appoint psychologists in the dormitories. ‘Considering the gravity of the situation, we needed to take immediate action and appoint psychologists in dormitories,’ said Prof SMA Faiz. ‘Usually any form of appointment requires approval from the University Grants Commission, but in this case we did not wait for the approval. We have already posted advertisement while the commission is working on the approval.’

Nine psychologists will be appointed for five residential halls, two each at Rokeya Hall, Shamsunnahar Hall, Kuwait Maitree Hall, Fazilatunnisa Mujib Hall – and one in Nawab Faizunnisa Hall.

Over the past years, for these students, there has been only one psychologist working at the students counselling and guidance centre of the university. Recent steps suggest that there will regular counselling undertaken by peer groups trained by the team of counsellors.

The university walls are now pasted with adverts and notices concerning this new initiation that is hoped to reduce the alarming rates of suicides in the recent years. While, this remains to be an issue of much discussion and anticipation, many doubt the effectiveness of such a step.

‘There are many dimensions to counselling,’ says Ferdousi Hannan, professor, department of sociology. ‘For one this sessions need to be effective and each student need to be given separate time and attention. To what extent can peer groups really make a difference in such cases is a major question.’

The environment and ambience of the hall itself has a major role to play in the well-being of these women, adds Hannan.

Professor Nazma Shaheen, shares her experience of the first suicide case she handled as a house-tutor of Rokeya Hall of the university. ‘The first suicide case I handled was, most probably, two and a half years ago, during the month of Ramadan. A female student committed suicide by taking Marshal, an insecticide. She was admitted to Dhaka Medical College and Hospital (DMCH). I and the provost rushed there immediately and the doctors said that they wanted to shift her in ventilation. We were trying to arrange everything but by the time I returned, she had died.’

Professor Nazma Shaheen has seen some more deaths like this which have left her upset and disturbed. She points out one of the factors for such occurrences as the way in which a woman is reared since childhood in Bangladeshi society.

‘So far, I observed most of the families rear their female children in a way that their main aim is to get an established or wealthy husband. But there is a lack of proper guidance. Most of the female students don’t know how to handle the relations with their boyfriends; they give away everything and continue to do so before getting betrayed. Finally, they become so emotional that they think their life is finished; they don’t even share their problems with any one, and get into depression and end up committing suicide.’

‘Most young women in Bangladesh suffer from low self-esteem. From childhood they are brought up in such a way that they become dependent on others,’ says Prof Shaheen Islam of DU psychology department and director of the Students Counselling and Guidance Centre. ‘So, when a relationship breaks, they feel ignored and insignificant. They take desperate action thinking that they have no other purpose in life. Other young people with similar problems often imitate such action leading to a suicidal tendency.’

Mehtab Khanam, professor, department of psychology, University of Dhaka thinks that the majority of the cases involve relationship issues, which seem to affect these students tremendously.

She says, ‘One of the major problems with these cases is that they get involved in undefined relationships meaning they seem to confuse their needs. They hardly give any thought as to whether they can actually afford it in the long run. So, on one hand one partner gets deeply involved and the other backs of, it hits them. They cannot seem to accept such betrayal and chose to commit suicide as they see it as the end of their life.’

In August 2007, Sabera Yasmin Papri committed suicide by swallowing sleeping pills in less than two months after another suicide incident. She was a third year student of the Institute of Fine Art and a resident of room no 112 of Bangladesh-Kuwait Maitree Hall, who died at Dhaka Medical College Hospital. According to the provost of the dormitory, Professor Tahmina Akter, she had found out from her friends that Papri had phoned one of her friends from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) campus at around 1:30pm, requesting her to save her life as she had swallowed more than 50 sleeping pills. Following this phone call, her friends rushed her to the hospital, where her stomach was washed, a few minutes after which she died.

According to her friends, Papri was in love with an MBA marketing student of the university and their relationship was getting bad for a few days.

The incidents leave a detrimental impact on the other residents of the hall. The friends and neighbours fail to believe that their friends have taken their own lives. Dipa, a friend of Sandhya Rani Sarker, said Shandhya died the day after Pahela Boishakh, ‘she wore a saree on April 14 and looked happy all day during the celebration, it was so shocking for us when we heard she was no more the very next day.’

There is also the problem of adjusting to a new environment; as the residents of halls do not belong to the city, they find it very strange here and fail to adjust. At home they are under strict monitoring, which is not possible here, so they do whatever they want and get into trouble, points out a house tutor.

Getting into wired relationships is seen as a major reason of girl’s suffering from depression. ‘Since the girls stay away from their families they do not get proper guidance, they end up having wired relationships, like Hindu girl with Muslim boy, rich with poor, young with old, and then start having problems in their families, and finding nowhere to go they become frustrated and commit suicide,’ says Mosammet Asma Jahan, part-time house tutor, Rokeya hall, DU.

While majority of the cases, do point towards failure in relationships and being cheated by boyfriends as one of the prime reason for such suicide incidents, many also point towards the setting of the halls and the University itself. Over the years, there have been countless cases, where students had committed suicide due to academic reasons, financial problems and often unknown depression.

For some, a part of the reason comes from the fact that being a student of Dhaka University means that the students take up their academic achievement way seriously. ‘Being a part of the top university means that you are one of the thousands who had strived to be a part of it and when you fail to live up to the expectations and standards its depressing,’ says a student of Department of Economics.

On June 4, a Masters student of Economics Antu hanged herself in their residence in Paribagh after she failed to get a first class for four marks. ‘She had been extremely depressed over this issue and repeatedly mentioned how we would never understand why it meant so much to her.’

Sometimes, financial problems also lead the students towards frustration. Khadija, a resident of Rokeya hall hung herself supposedly because of financial crisis. She had an affair with a private university student; her family did not accept it and stopped supporting her financially. She then started doing tuitions. For some reason she could not continue her job and was suffering from financial problems. It is suspected that money-crisis led her towards frustration and committing suicide.

‘The setting of the university halls is also an important factor. The halls need to be improved environment and hygiene is a major issue to be considered,’ says Ferdous Hannan.

There are also stringent rules in the halls. The gates open at 6 am and close at 9.30 at most. If someone has to come late, she needs to have late permission, if someone wants to stay out she needs to inform beforehand, but it is not very effective as there are too many students in the halls.

The house tutors time to time counsel the students if they find them upset or see anything wrong. They have observed that the group counselling has not been very fruitful as it does not reach the students on an individual level. Recently, they have brought in Prof Sadeka Halim, Dr Mehtab Khanam, Dr Shaheen Islam (counsellor) and many more to have discussions with the students.

Most of the suicides seem to have taken place in Rokeya hall. Being the largest one with around 1500 students this hall has more risk of such mishaps than other halls. Though according to other hall’s residents this is the hall with all facilities; there are single beds, attached baths and individual lockers, students of this hall has a greater tendency to commit suicide. ‘Maybe it is because of the influences of other suicide incidents that happened around them,’ says a tutor of Moitree Hall.

‘The mental wellbeing of these students can be greatly ensured through the improvements made in the hall and identifying the problems that they go through- independent lifestyle, politics, academic pressure, family problems and much more,’ says Hannan.

Many feel that the sudden freedom that these women get is also a major factor. It is understood that the innocent village girls struggle to cope with the city life here, sometimes get entangled in problems, make mistakes and do not share and this in turn push them to harm themselves at the end of the day.

‘Communicating, with friends and family no matter where you live is very important,’ says a student. The students also think that it is important to have control over your desires. Imu a resident of Shamsunnahar hall said, ‘Friendship is something that can help you out of all sorts of trouble. If we see any of our friends upset, we’ll make her smile by hook or crook, but those who stay aloof, cannot really fight with the odds around here.’

Dipa said, ‘A father whose daughter committed suicide after being pregnant wrote a letter to us saying that her daughter could have shared that with her parents, because she meant a lot to them, but his daughter did not dare to share her mistake since she thought she made the ultimate mistake of her life. Her father also suggested us not to do any of the stuff like his daughter did.’

Whatever the issues maybe, the situation calls for desperate help. While counselling is a step forward to improving the situation there is also a need for proper examination, individual attention given in making psychological well-being a part of the over all system.

One comment

  1. This is a an on and off problem here in the U.S. in our high schools. Our reasons may be different.

    One thing that reads the same unfortunately is the pattern. When a suicide occurs in a high school here, it sometimes leads to what has been coined as copycatting. Over the next months there may be more at the same school.

    In all cases it seems that no matter how the person presented themself to the world on the inside they suffer from feelings of isolation, or a problem with no apparent solution.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: