By Zubeida Mustafa
SUICIDES by young men and women have been periodically reported from Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). Authentic figures are not available in the absence of scientific surveys and forensic facilities, which allows ‘honour’ killings to be masked as suicide. Nevertheless, the suicide rate in this region is, arguably, higher than the average in Pakistan (8.9 per 100,000).
But we have good tidings from Ghizer in this context. This town of scenic beauty has been the centre of tragic self-destruction by youth overwhelmed by despair. Now there is hope. A group of young men and women, sharing the frustration of their contemporaries, have decided to act. On June 19, they arranged a maraka in Ghizer. This is a unique practice. Unlike a jirga, it offers no verdict. Instead, it offers the opportunity to all participants to share their views on an issue of concern. Nearly 700 young people and some seniors attended the June assembly to articulate their thoughts on suicide.
Anayat Baig, who is a trained mental health worker, mobilised his team — Jabeen Fatima, Ehtisham and Sehr — to take the initiative.
The guidelines for the maraka were simple: all the youth would get a hearing without the listeners being judgmental. The gathering was an inclusive one and all participants were provided pen and paper for expressing their views. The preliminary discussion helped frame a declaration of 21 demands. They ranged from a call for declaring a mental health emergency to counselling being indigenised and cultural programmes being held for the youth. The written input from the participants is being analysed for further action.
Nearly 700 young people and some seniors discussed suicide.
One hopes this exercise will bear fruit and that it will lead to tangible solutions.
For years, those in power have known the youth in GB are disgruntled and that suicide is common. HRCP representative Israruddin told me that he had pointed this out more than five years ago and also suggested that the government should arrange for research and take suicide-prevention measures. But his voice went unheeded. GB still lacks medico-legal experts, and medical and environmental researchers to determine the causes of the high suicide rates.
Aga Khan University authorities, who run an extensive education programme in GB, making it one of the most literate regions in Pakistan, have responded to the suicide challenge by adopting an interventionist approach from a mental health perspective.
My long conversation with Anayat Baig proved to be most revealing. He understands the psyche of his people and by virtue of his training in Karachi is able to take a detached view of his homeland. He believes that social factors are the root cause of GB’s suicide crisis. The youth is alienated from the community. The social/familial, mental health, economic and political structures are ill-prepared to cope with the challenge. Innovative strategies to meet the growing psychosocial needs of the people have not been devised.
The fact is that this has been the perpetual tragedy of Pakistan for decades. It is Ghizer’s misfortune that it has been hit harder because the pace of transformation in the region has been rather rapid and uneven since the turn of the century. This has left no space for adjustments that normally take place in such a situation. Education has been the biggest catalyst in changing the mindset, aspirations and expectations of the young people.
The older generations have not been touched by the winds of modernisation that have taken the youth by storm. The resultant clash of generations has brought with it new problems.
Jabeen, who went to Lahore for higher education, identifies patriarchy as the major cause of friction. She specifies forced marriages, domestic violence and lack of communication with parents as factors that make life difficult for girls. Jabeen also points to the stress that a competitive school system causes in children.
Integrated and holistic development in every sector is essential for growth that is balanced; Anayat points out that the government’s economic and political policies have failed to keep pace with the development in the education sector in GB. Hence, unemployment among the educated youth is high. They are frustrated and life seemingly holds no promise for them. The political status of GB is in a state of limbo — Islamabad’s promise to grant GB provincial status remains unfulfilled. This drives away investment.
In this context, the maraka is a good move. It may lead to local solutions. Anayat plans to take the assembly to other tehsils of Ghizer and make it a permanent feature of life as a part of his Sang project.
He is optimistic as is Jabeen. They believe that sharing their frustration will help the youth. Jabeen recalls how a female participant at the maraka told her, “I was contemplating suicide. Now I am not.” Jabeen inspires hope in her poem Aurat with lines that translate to: “Life calls out again/ Come let’s learn to live once more.”