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Farmer suicides and masculinity

Farmer suicides and masculinity

That age-old notions like patriarchy and masculinity suppress and disempower women is widely recognized and well-documented, but they have an equally damaging effect on men’s behaviour and psyche as well. Notions of masculinity have always been closely linked to men’s ability to earn and provide for their families, and when they are unable to do so, they are seen as failures by the larger community.

This idea is explored in a research paper on farmer suicides in Andhra Pradesh by Nilotpal Kumar, Professor of Development Studies at the Azim Premji University in Bangalore. Titled Egoism, Anomie and Masculinity: Suicide in Rural South India, Professor Kumar looks closely into agrarian suicides in 29 villages in Anantpur district.

Farmer suicides have seen a disturbing rise in various parts of India, especially Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Professor Kumar says that while there are various economic reasons behind the numbers like being in debt and the inability to get a good price for their crop, other social factors have come into play as well.

The study (page 231) found that while around 48% cases of suicide are due to agrarian crisis, about 45% were due to non-agrarian reasons, and masculinity is one of these non-agrarian reasons. Causes included the shame felt due to the farmer's inability to marry his daughter in a well-off family, pay dowry, inability to perform sexually, etc.

“There are changes in three relationships,” explains Professor Kumar. One is the father-son relationship, one is the man-woman relationship and the third is the man’s relationship with himself, his identity.

“The father-son relationship sours as the son begins to challenge the father's decision-making powers. He wants to change the manner in which cultivation is being done, or wants the father to dig a well. On several occasions this leads to dramatic fights, and sons have consumed poison for not being able to assert their authority. Sometimes sons have dug borewells without telling the father which has led to conflict and suicides.”

The study also points to the changing equations between men and women. “Traditionally, agricultural decisions were taken only by the men in the family”, says Professor Kumar. “But with their economic power rising, women have started asserting themselves. Sometimes the wives compare husbands to better-off neighbours, challenging their notions of masculinity. On such occasions, farmers have committed suicide.”

The study found that male farmers are constantly evaluating their performance at every level. They see themselves as providers and responsible for bringing home the bread, and do not want to share their burden—economic or emotional—with their wives or anyone. In many cases, the wives had no idea of the extent of debt their husbands had incurred.

“There is a strong idea of Paurusham,” says Professor Kumar, “So while men may sometimes allow wives to give suggestions; they cannot tolerate their wives questioning their decisions. In one case when the wife did so, the farmer consumed poison. In another instance, a wife pushed her husband slightly on the field in front of other men, including people from lower castes. He committed suicide.”

What emerges is a picture of how deeply trapped men are by the notions of masculinity. They want to hold on to this sense at every stage which makes it difficult for them to handle any domestic issue, be it a moneylender threatening to assault their wives, or their wives having an extra-marital affair. Residents of villages which reported a high suicide rate expressed pride in the fact saying they had more ‘masculine’ men. Empathy for farmers who took their lives was expressed through remarks like their ‘pride was hurt’.”

Farmers who had failed to commit suicide were the subject of ridicule and unable to bear the ‘disgrace’, and many attempted suicide again. “Masculinity as a culture has a strong ethos,” points out Professor Kumar. “It is because there is a culture of ridiculing men who have failed, or are unable to perform, that suicides take place.”

Caught in a suffocating construct, farmers are unable to cope with the changing order, or express themselves, and resort to extreme steps. Clearly, notions of masculinity and patriarchy are a disadvantage not just for women. They bring with them a set of behavioural norms that are hindering men from giving voice to their problems and vulnerabilities.



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