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Failure to recognise wishes of young female migrants leads to suicide attempts

30 June 2009 NWO (Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research)

Young Turkish women and South Asian-Surinamese women are much more likely to attempt suicide than young Dutch women. On the other hand, their Moroccan counterparts are less likely to do so. These are some of the findings of Dutch researcher Diana van Bergen. In particular, the extent to which young women are restricted in important life choices plays a crucial role.

Figures from the Rotterdam Public Health Service (GGD) showed that 19.2 % of young Surinamese Hindu women had attempted suicide. 14.6 % of young Turkish women, and 8.8 % of young Dutch women. Yet only 6.2 % of young Moroccan women reported ever making a suicide attempt. According to Van Bergen, a migratory background or an ethnic minority status therefore fails to fully explain the increased risk of suicidal behaviour among young female migrants.

No life of subservience

To investigate the factors likely to cause suicidal behaviour, Van Bergen interviewed fifty women who had previously attempted suicide. Van Bergen interviewed both women with a migratory background and native Dutch women. In the life stories of the migrants who had attempted suicide, the struggle with the family over essential choices in their lives was found to play a central role. It was expected that Turkish, Moroccan and South Asian-Surinamese women would report having a lack of independence. However, this proved to be the case for young Turkish and Moroccan women in particular.

Many of the Turkish and Moroccan women reported being forced by their parents and families into doing things that, looking back, they did not actually want to do. For example, girls were taken out of school to marry a man chosen by the family or to look after family members. In addition, the restrictions and coercion were often justified by cultural images of women who were obliged to conform to their family's wishes. This affected not only their freedom but also their self-image.

Despite this similarity between the Moroccan and Turkish women, the GGD's figures show that Moroccan women attempt suicide much less frequently. According to Van Bergen, it is possible that girls today face fewer restrictions, are quicker to enter into battle with their family, or are quicker to distance themselves from their family when they are strongly confined by their parents. Another possibility is that they feel less constrained by the cultural images of self-sacrifice and subservience.

No life of loneliness

Young Dutch women appeared to have much fewer restrictions on their freedom to contend with; on the contrary they often failed to receive sympathy or were even neglected by their family and it was this that prompted the suicide attempt. Against all expectations, however, this also applied to South Asian-Surinamese women. Not only were these young women confronted with a lack of affection and security; their parents were often authoritarian and more likely to use physical violence.

Surprisingly enough, migration did not appear to play a major role for the women interviewed. The combined effects of lack of independence, cultural images of the subordinate role of women, poor self-image, and an absence of family solidarity are much more important points for these women. Van Bergen argues that women should be given support in improving their self-image and criticising the cultural images of female self-sacrifice.

Van Bergen conducted her research with NWO funding. Her supervisor, Prof. S. Saharso, received a Free Competition grant from the NWO's Division for the Social Sciences.

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