Why are children committing suicide?

Two children have committed suicide in two different cities of Pakistan within the last two months. They were very young, not even in their teens yet.  All reports suggest that these children were led to such despair as to take their own life due to pressures within the schools. This is not just sad. It is nauseating. Intolerable! What schools will do this to children? What society will remain mute in the face of such news? What meaning does right to education have when divorced from right to life?

I cannot fathom how helpless these kids must have felt.  Yet, many more still live to suffer in the same schools. The child who killed himself today went to a private school. There are many out there who advocate private is better based on the evidence of better scores they produce on math, science, and literacy. Yet very few who would care to know how these schools treat humans, how they teach them English at the cost of depriving them of their self esteem. The child who killed himself today wrote in his diary that his school had imposed a fine of Rs. 5/- on children for speaking in Urdu. Result: possibly a relatively high achievement score in the English language test + one dead child + many more with their self worth taken away from them.

About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts

15 Responses to “Why are children committing suicide?”

  1. You have hit the nail on the head. Since I began my campaign on language in education with my book (www.zubeidamustafa.com), I find people who have the power to decide and implement policies don’t challenge me but they continue exactly as before.

    • It seems evident from some of Baela’s comment as well as your work on this so very important matter that there are significant language related pressures on children in Private schools. Its just appalling for policy to turn a blind eye to this. The instances of children suicide should have called for a response and a systematic inquiry, which brings out these issues of language teaching and teacher cruelty and suggest concrete measures to deal with this issue. One would expect the academic community and the civil society to do more to draw attention to these events.

  2. Dear Irfan
    It is heart wrenching .. but just to inform you that when we (my sister and me) were sent to St. Denis School in Murree as young students we were fined Rs. 10 if we spoke in our mother tongue Urdu which infuriated me. I warned my father that I would walk home to Karachi from Murree if I this were to happen. My father knowing me better after 3 months withdrew us from the school…I was privileged This was 1962/3 .. Now in 2012 the tragic happenings of what goes on in young children’s hearts and heads when they are harassed by teachers is so revealing. If educators, human rights and child rights activists do not take note of these acts of violence then we are doomed as a society. This is an unacceptable trend in the 21st century. We from the Pakistan Coalition for Education, and the Child Rights Movement (CRM) need to take urgent action .. we want RTE to education in Pakistan but where schools are safe and teachers are human, nurturing and caring .. how can we write this into the code /procedures/rules of the emerging RTE laws.. ..

    • Dear Baela, several people on the FB also said something similar about such experiences. Since this back and forth was helpful in making me think through it a bit further, I will paste it here as well.
      One friend said:
      “i was schooled at convent and though they didnt fine, speaking in Urdu was strongly discouraged. I think at some point we even had monitors who reported to the teachers if any girl spoke in urdu during recess. Plus all throughout convent they force fed us a syllabus of jane austin, dickens and shakespeare while urdu poetry and prose was never afforded the same importance. Did this bear strongly on our sense of self worth and rootedness in our own society; definitely.”
      My response:
      “Yes, most of us have been through these pressures in school to speak in a language other than our mother tongues….I have nothing against learning a foreign language. But we could do it in ways that also preserved our self esteem…The concern for self esteem needs to be foregrounded in education but unfortunately the current trends focus more on the test scores and not on what the schools do in order to produce them.”

      Your point about upcoming RTE laws is critical. They certainly the RTE laws need an initial scrutiny to eliminate violence against children from the schools.

  3. Irfan, thank you for pointing this issue. I think the pressure that we are putting on children, in schools, especially the so called private and slightly more expensive schools, on the whole and not just in language instruction, is too much. It is not conducive for learning, for child growth and nourishment, for developing the right spirit about learning and life, nor is it good for the mind set it creates in children as well as parents…about competitions and so on. And it encourages unhealthy habits like rote learning as well. If you remember we talked about some issues related to this before too…about over examining, using tests as a disciplining mechanism and so on.
    Each child will respond differently to the pressure. And the extreme actions of the two children are just the tip…how many there must be who live under alleviated anxiety, pressure and tension and live like that for years till it becomes habitual. There needs to be an effort to address these issues.
    Thank you

    • Faisal, thanks for your comment. While I was reading your comment, unconfirmed news of another child self immolating himself somewhere in or around Multan fell into my ears. A child died yesterday in Lahore, Bhagatpura, after tortured by Qari Sahib. So widespread it is! The society is venting its anger out on the weak. This time it is children. Its certainly not just about language issues, though they also figure prominently in the mix. Much more than that!

      The roots of the malaise may be in the overall desperation from which the adults suffer too. When people are in such socioeconomic despair and are also humiliated regularly, we should be surprised if they continue to value human life–Somehow am reminded of Dicken’s Oliver Twist which also described the institutional and bureaucratic cruelties toward the weak.

      You are right, the extreme action of two kids is just the tip of this iceberg. Many more suffer in the dungeons we call schools–doesn’t matter which mode, public or private.

      language issues have surfaced here because they got a mention in the diary of the child who committed suicide yesterday. But certainly they are not the only issue with schools.

      It is crucially important, as we have talked about earlier as well, that we stop looking at the bogus achievement gaps between the public and private schools and attend to what goes on inside these schools. Gap gazing is a fetish well suited to the Western school systems.

      Some more thoughts:

      I have a gnawing feeling that we won’t get there if we don’t focus on getting serious answers to some of the following questions:
      What do we mean by good education in our context?

      How does that breakdown into curriculum? So far we have been relying exclusively on travelling reforms, which are fine as long as they resonate with a local vision.

      What political and individual goals must the education be able to serve? Without an answer to this question we would fall into the trap of thinking that market freedom will take care of it all–but as you and others who know better keep pointing out that market, even if it matters, has its limits, and that without an effective state guarantee and regulation the enterprise in education can run amok. We are only beginning to see the signs of that happening.

      What kind of institutions and individuals can deliver this education? Most importantly, HOW TO PAY FOR IT [WITHOUT EXTERNAL AID, OF COURSE]? That is, it does not matter whether the provision is private or public as long as it is regulated and paid for through taxes. When we advocate for private sector in the absence of such regulation and taxation, we will end up exacerbating inequities in a social context that can only collapse under their weight.

      In the absence of a vision guided by questions such as these and many more that we should raise and seek answers to, we also tend to keep fetishizing the test scores, just as we have done in the case of large scale comparative studies. One possible effect of this test-score-fetish is that it encourages the schools to produce good test score any which way they can.

  4. Irfan, thanks for highlighting this issue. We have the tragic death of another child swallowed up by a callous school system and the shared idiocy of all concerned with regard to language and learning. And yes it is more than just that. Clearly, hostel life was a nightmare for Mobin. One can easily imagine untrained and indifferent individuals, possibly it was worse than that, making the life of those in their charge utterly miserable. On the other hand we have parents straining their resources to send their child to the hostel and dismissing his complaints against the school on the assumption that at the very least he was getting a good education in a private school or, alternatively, not being able to do much about the stress and humiliation that their child was subjected to.

    • Thanks to all for contributing and providing comments. But i would love to have suggestions to take necessary action on this issue. So please provide your suggestion and comments to resolve this matter.
      One is to mobilize all the forums including the media to preasuize governemtn to review the policy and strengthen monitoring standard and ensure accountability and transparncy. And as these incidents is direct linking with the Private schools that need to be take urgent steps and circulate the memu and build the parents confidence as well.

      Hoping for your suggestions and comments on how we can provide better place to children to learn and enjoy life.

      • One more option that we should ensure that children have access to counselling for school children regardless governement or private schools

      • Ashir Zia, much appreciated.
        There are some immediate steps that the state and civil society could take. In the long term, there is need for much more informed debate about education. Penciling the RTE in constitution is not enough.
        The immediate steps, in my humble view, could be:

        1. Media should be prevented from sensationalising and selling child suicide in ways that might make this appear to the impulsive children as a viable alternative to rid themselves of pressures they face at the school. Media coverage, as of now, is pathetic.

        2. Education schools and civil society should call attention to how children are treated in the schools. Sole emphasis on test scores is not helpful. Education ought to be a lot more than making children get good scores on the English, Math, and Science tests.

        3. Language instruction, especially the strategies used in schools to make children learn English, should be scrutinised–too much pressure. It is unrealistic to insist on teaching school subjects in children’s mother tongue, but I think people like Zubeida Mustafa and others are working hard on identifying the solutions to the problems posed by a particular kind of colonial heritage. English is not children’s mother tongue and they should not be scared of making mistakes. Only teachers, parents, and schools can ensure that. Policy will fail here [though I hope I a wrong]. Therefore, I think the issue of language teaching and child friendly schools should take some space away from meaningless conversations on the media about Pakistani politicians.

        4. Society needs some uplifting too. Channels such as ARY and GEO seems to have made it their mission to sell pessimism to Pakistani society. Is there a way of telling them to please cut this short now? Geo’s education campaign should not only focus on high achievers but on conditions inside the schools as well.

        5. Of course, there are things that are beyond our immediate reach. We can’t fix load shedding, prices, incomes and all that. But we should also not be misled into thinking that fixing schools will fix everything.

        We should all put our heads together and keep thinking…forums such as this blog and others can help in collecting ideas and responses. We should not let this opportunity be lost.

  5. you wrote in (3): It is unrealistic to insist on teaching school subjects in children’s mother tongue,
    I guess you were writing in a hurry or you really meant it?

  6. Didn’t see this post until now, so apologies for my delayed response to this very important issue that you raised here. I agree with all the excellent suggestions you made in your comments and with most of the analyses that the commentators put forth on the reasons that this happens in the first place– a massive collective colonial hangover that has resulted in the hegemony of one language over all others (totally borrowing from Gramsci on that one and fitting it to the context here) , valuing high test scores over everything else so that the ends justify the means etc etc.

    Just my two bits–one of the real issues that need to be addressed in this context is that of corporal punishment, which unfortunately is not limited only to educational institutions that place an emphasis on learning or even test scores at all. A visit to any run-down, barely functioning public school can confirm that. To me it seems that attacking a defenseless, vulnerable child points to complex issues ranging from frustration, a teacher’s insecurity about her own inability to teach a subject, to plain old sadism. Unless all these various coalitions working for education can address these issues and create enough pressure to ban this practice completely, our children will continue to suffer. Parents need to be educated about the fact that it is not okay for their child to be verbally or physically abused at school, and to look for clues when it happens. All of these issues need to be dealt with in conjunction with the broader philosophical question of what we are trying to achieve by sending our children to schools in the first place. Learning English and getting good test scores at the cost of a bruised body and shattered self esteem (in the case of children who don’t commit suicide that is) seems to be a very high price to pay.


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