Do you ever feel so discouraged in your job that you just want to quit?
That’s a tough question. When Safeena Husain answered it during a panel discussion at the Skoll World Forum this spring, an annual gathering that addresses social change, she began crying – and her story brought tears to the eyes of the audience as well.
Husain is founder and director of Educate Girls, a nonprofit group in India that encourages families in rural areas to send their daughters to school and keep them in school. In many parts of the country, families do not put a priority on educating girls. One reason is that parents may think daughters will end up leaving the family to live with her husband’s family, so there’s no benefit to them if they invest in her education.
Active in 13,000 villages, the group has brought over 380,000 girls into schools since 2007, paying their fees and offering support.
Husain’s moment of doubt about her work came last spring.
Husain was personally paying school costs for a teenager she knew in her community (which is not one of the areas where the foundation is active.) The girl and Husain’s daughters “grew up together,” she says. The girl came from a poor family. Her father worked odd jobs; her mother was homebound because of health issues.
The teenager was part of a new generation of girls in India pursuing their education and their dreams and ambitions – and she was the first in her family to advance so far in school.
She wanted “to finish her education and get a proper office job, to bring financial security to her family,” says Husain. “She worked hard and was fluent in English. You see this young girl blooming, on the way to becoming a strong adult.”
Last spring, the teenager took her 10th grade final exams, which determines where you’ll go for the next year of secondary school. She was nervous about the exams beforehand and wasn’t happy with her grades. Husain remembers her saying, “Ma’am, my results were not so good. I’m not going to get admission to a good school where all my friends are going.”
And then she killed herself. She was 16 years old.
I spoke with Husain about this incident and the pressures faced by teenage girls in India. To protect the privacy of the girl and her family, we will not use her name.
Husain showed me photos of the teenager. She had a gentle, kind face with sympathetic brown eyes. She was like an older sister to Husain’s two daughters, and the three girls hung out a lot.
To some degree, the girl’s despondency about her grades is part of the teenage experience around the globe, as kids may feel defined by their grades. In the United States, for example, “your SAT score becomes a part of you – but it’s just a number,” Husain says.
The pressure for all students to succeed is strong in India, where the youth population is growing and a high school diploma is needed to land a good job. “It’s like hard currency for someone who’s poor,” says Husain.
In patriarchal regions of India, girls in school bear an extra burden. In many homes, they’re not treated the same as their brothers. They still carry a daughter’s traditional burden of household chores, Husain says: “They do the housework, they fetch water.” So there’s less time for homework – and even for school. One headmaster told Husain of parents coming to school to take their daughter out in the middle of the day “because we have guests and she has to make tea for the guests.”
What’s more, says Husain, parents of girls may say to their daughters who are attending school: “If you fail, we’re going to pull you out and marry you off.”
Husain doesn’t know exactly what was going through the girl’s mind that led her to suicide. And she is devastated that she wasn’t more aware of her emotional state: “I felt like, could I have done more to support her? How come I didn’t see the child right under my nose?”
The suicide of the teenage girl reflects trends in suicide everywhere – adolescents are at the highest risk, with their tendency to act impulsively and take risks, says Dr. Vikram Patel, a professor of global health at Harvard who has studied suicide globally. In research on India published in The Lancet, he found that youth suicide rates are high on the global scale: 18.6 suicide deaths per 100,000 boys and men age 15 to 29 and 12.7 per 100,000 girls and women. In the U.S., by contrast, the rates per 100,000 for the 15-to-34 age group is 5.7 per 100,000.
“Every young person’s suicide has a very particular story behind it,” Patel says, “and the one you described is a very plausible narrative,” referring to intense pressures at school.
It’s a narrative now making headlines in India. Officials in the state of Telangana have reported that at least 19 students killed themselves in April after they learned they’d failed the national exams for high school students, which are critical for college admission. Students and parents are charging that many of the failing tests were inaccurately scored; the local government has ordered an investigation amid allegations of a grading fiasco from opposition parties.
According to India Today and other media outlets, Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao “made an emotional appeal to the students to not take an extreme step.”
But Patel believes that India does not provide the kind of mental health interventions that would help those harboring suicidal thoughts. He’d like to see a national policy on suicide prevention that funds strategies to address the problem: psychological support for people with symptoms of depression or facing a life crisis and training for young people in “social and emotional competencies.”
That’s happening in “fits and starts,” he says, “But I won’t say there’s any comprehensive national recognition of suicide as a public health crisis as there has been in many other countries.”
A shaken Husain says it’s too soon to assess the full impact of the suicide. She’s “still grieving” over the loss of her friend and neighbor.
One response is the introduction of supports in a pilot project called to help adolescent girls cope with the stresses of academia and family life – “anything to help them with exams,” Husain says. That includes study groups and learning camps to lessen test anxiety and to provide “the space where they can come together with other girls to study.” She is also arranging for counselors and mentors to be available if girls are feeling discouraged.
And she wants to make sure that her group gives this message to all female students: “If you fail, we will be there for you.”
Husain remains steadfast in her mission: “Education is the most powerful tool to empower girls. An educated girl is less likely to become a child bride, less likely to have children early — and more likely to gain employment.”
But the tragedy has made her reflect on the complicated nature of getting families, especially in rural areas, to educate their daughters: “It makes you think and reminds you how hard problems really are. And that there are no shortcuts, no easy answers and quick fixes.”
I asked what her best memory of the teenager is.
Husain draws a breath and says: “My best memory is seeing her come up to my house on this battered scooter. She was about 15. She had learned to ride this motorized scooter. It was such a symbol of independence.”
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.