BLOG: CPSP filmmaker Heshani Sothiraj Eddleston introduces her latest film, exploring the concept of a virtuous woman and how culture, shame and honour can lead to self-harm and suicide in Nepal.
*Warning: This article discusses suicidal behaviour. If you have questions on self-harm or feel suicidal, use this link to find an international helpline.*
Shame. Virtue. What do these two words have to do with pesticide poisoning and self-harm?
Last year, I visited Nepal to meet colleagues and understand more about their work in Nepal. I was researching a film and was in early stages of story development. However, this changed after meeting with the farming community, women’s groups, academics, psychologists, and medical doctors. I soon realised that almost every person we met, students, farmers, TV production folk, and the hotel staff, knew someone who had harmed themselves or died by suicide. They all had a story to tell us.
Preventing pesticide suicide
We spoke about our work and why we wanted to ban highly hazardous pesticides in vulnerable farming communities. They applauded the idea but wanted to know why we were only focusing on pesticide poisoning; they argued that if these means were stopped, people would find other ways to harm themselves. So, would it not be helpful to work on this topic differently? Should we be addressing this from a mental health angle?
We agreed that this issue must be addressed through a multi-disciplinary method. We also explained that research has shown that, in low and middle-income countries, suicide is not always a mental health problem. It is a layered issue which can overlap between mental distress caused by stressful situations, conflict, grief and mental health problems. Therefore, our focus, or contribution to this issue, was banning highly hazardous pesticides and their availability in vulnerable, rural communities.
CPSP research suggests that access to highly hazardous pesticides in moments of crisis is dangerous. People die because the pesticides are lethal; often, in hospital beds, doctors find patients asking to save their lives. The theory is that once the crisis goes away, thoughts of suicide also fade away. This is evident when I spoke to survivors who consumed less potent pesticides. Often, they claim that they would never repeat it, sometimes finding ways to change their situations.
Proving their virtue
I was struck by one story. A young mother who drank pesticide and killed herself because of the pressures she faced from her husband and in-laws for giving birth to 5 girls. At the time she died, her youngest was just two years old. The little girl was looked at by her relatives as a burden; some had said that it was the child’s bad karma and she was bad luck. Then, when she was 16, this girl also killed herself.
Her aunt related this story to me, and this sat with me for a long time. If the mother had taken a less harmful pesticide and hadn’t died, would she have taken her girls and lived a different life? Her daughter would perhaps still be alive.
Having worked on this issue for over 15 years, one common thread stood out. Old or young, women often harmed themselves to prove their virtue, their goodness, finding no other way to communicate this. They wanted to show that the blame that was placed on them was unjust. In sadness and frustration, they harmed themselves.
Failed love affairs, bad exam results, failed crops, debts, abuse at home, children undermining parents, the list goes on. The similarities of the stories were the same whether it was in Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh or Nepal. The loss of face or shame was an unbearable consequence for an action or a situation that they found unjust.
What is a good woman?
I decided to make a film for Sita, the little 2-year-old girl who may have lived if her mother had not taken a lethal pesticide. I named her Sita, the very personification of womanhood and virtue. The film follows a young girl’s exploration of who a good woman is. Are the social, cultural, and religious institutions placing too many expectations on women to be virtuous? We spoke to schoolchildren, university students, academics, physicians, nurses, psychiatrists, sociologists, farmers, farming families, social workers, survivors of self-harm, and families who lost someone to suicide.
The aim of this film is to open up discussion of the unrealistic expectations we place on our girls. The burden to carry the family’s honour is placed on a girl being good. This can be anywhere in the world. In Nepal, however, there is a high number of women dying due to suicides.
“In Nepal suicide is the single leading cause of death among women of reproductive age. The aim of this scoping review is to explore and understand the various contexts related to the vulnerability of Nepalese women towards suicide and deliberate self-harm”(Kasaju, Krumeich, Putten, 2021)
Events and screenings of Her Name Was Sita are currently being scheduled across the United Kingdom and Nepal. Further details will be announced shortly.
Heshani is a visual storyteller who has worked for over 20 years as a documentary filmmaker. She works with the team at CPSP to tell stories around pesticide poisoning and sales, ensuring that the Centre’s work is seen and can be related to a general audience.
Heshani’s films can be found on the CPSP YouTube channel.