Suicide and shame in Malawi

Newspaper Suicide

Malawi’s Nation on Sunday reports on the mysterious suicide of 24-year-old Robert Chasowa, a student and political activist. Photo by Nina Lex.

As I walked to work, the headlines of Malawi’s daily papers caught my eye: “Poly Student Commits Suicide.”

I stopped mid-step, shocked and stared wide-eyed at the gruesome photograph of the young man’s dead body splashed across the front page.

In Canada, it’s an unwritten rule that journalists aren’t supposed to report on suicides: “News media increasingly may not report the cause of death; or officials may not release information on the cause or manner of death, citing respect for the privacy of families,” according to the Canadian Journalism Project.

The Canadian Psychiatric Association also states that journalists should avoid putting the word “suicide” in the headline, giving details of the method used and the media should avoid photos of the deceased, avoid admiration of the deceased, avoid front page coverage, and avoid repetitive and excessive coverage. Many of the association’s recommendations can be adopted as journalistic guidelines.

While the act of suicide in Malawi remains taboo, suicide cases are often smeared across the pages of the country’s newspaper. Tabloidization of a suicide victim’s family, personal details and death are reported on without afterthought. Photographs and suicide letters are also printed.

Families and communities are often shamed after a death because of how the media reports on suicide, explained Kenneth Mtaso executive Director of Young Voices, a community–based organization (CBO) that works to protect and promote the rights of youth in Malawi.

Attempting and committing suicide is illegal in Malawi and is treated as a criminal offence rather than a social issue. Section 229 of the penal code states, “any person who attempts to kill himself shall be guilty of misdemeanor.”

This law brings further shame to families of those who try to take their own lives.

“If you are caught trying to kill yourself you go to prison. It can be a jail sentence between four and five years.  The police look at the forces that contributed to your suicide and then decide the length,” said Mtaso. “However, this isn’t effective because most people will disregard all punishment to commit suicide.”

There are no definitive statistics or data on how many people commit suicide or attempt suicide and are jailed in Malawi; however, it is believed that the number is growing as the country faces more challenges, such as increasing levels of poverty.

With over 70 per cent of Malawians living on less then a dollar, poverty is an instigator that leads to suicide in Malawi.  Poorer rural areas are more at risk for suicides, as there are greater cultural pressures and stigmatization to face there, explains Mtaso.

“In the villages people marry younger making them more susceptible to suicide. Also teen pregnancy is big factor in youth suicide,” said Mtaso. “Because of the stigma surrounding reproductive issues in Malawi, especially in rural areas, middle-aged women who are having trouble conceiving sometime commit suicide because of the pressures to have a baby.”

About 80 per cent of Malawi’s population lives in rural areas.

While there is less pressure on urban youth to marry and have children, alcohol and drugs leads to more youth suicides in Malawi’s major cities.

According to UNICEF, the adult HIV prevalence rate in Malawi in 2009 was 11 per cent, which also contributes to suicide in Malawi.

Young Voices has been offering advice for troubled youth, who are at risk of suicide in Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa since 1997.

“We try to emphasize that just because you live in poverty doesn’t mean it’s the end,” said Mtaso. “Young people have a responsibility to protect themselves and value life.”

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