Death comes easily to the young women of Batman

Turkey: Nicholas Birch reports from a mushrooming city in southeastern Turkey, where suicide rates are twice the national average…

Turkey: Nicholas Birch reports from a mushrooming city in southeastern Turkey, where suicide rates are twice the national average.

Punished by her older brother for wearing a tight skirt to a relative's wedding, 17-year-old Nesrin went quietly upstairs and hanged herself.

Faced with an arranged marriage to a man 30 years her senior, 18-year-old Rahime walked to an eight-storey building near her home, climbed to the top and stepped off the edge.

Death comes easily to the young women of southeastern Turkey, nowhere more so than in the city of Batman, where suicide rates are double the Turkish national average of five per 100,000 people.

By international standards, that's still relatively low: 12 Irish per 100,000 die by their own hand.

What is unusual about Batman - and other cities in the region - is that nearly 80 per cent of suicides are women, the opposite of norms elsewhere in the world.

Local experts say the anomaly has a lot to do with Batman's traumatic recent past. As recently as 1950, it was a hamlet.

Now it holds 300,000 people, mostly small farmers forced out of their villages during the recent 15-year war between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish state.

"These people lost everything, houses, land, flocks, dignity," says Gulistan Taskin, a sociologist who runs the Batman branch of Selis, a women's advice centre active in the southeast. "All they brought with them was a mindset unsuited to city life."

She points to a survey she conducted recently of Selis's clients. The 20-page document makes for depressing reading, and not just for its depiction of deep poverty.

Barely 20 per cent of the married women interviewed were with a husband of their choice. One in four had more than 10 children. Seventy-five per cent never had formal schooling and nearly half were illiterate.

A psychiatrist at the university hospital in the neighbouring city of Diyarbakir, Aytekin Sir, describes those who die as "victims of a clash of civilisations". Before they migrated, he explains, women were all but cut off from the world. They often stayed inside the house until marriage, and rarely came into contact with men outside the extended family. "Some urban families continue to impose these sort of conditions on their daughters," he says. "It just doesn't work."

Suicide levels throughout southeast Turkey began to rise with the end of the separatist war in 1999, in what experts say is a well-documented response to the return of peace.

More sinister was a second spurt that began last summer, following the introduction of a new criminal code that brought in harsh punishments for "honour" killings.

Before, men who murdered their womenfolk for dishonouring the family - a concept wide enough to include anything from adultery to smiling too much - risked at most two years in prison. Now they face life.

Aytekin Sir, for one, is convinced that some of the recent suicides are honour killings in disguise. "The law is definitely a deterrent, but it hasn't changed mentalities", he says.

Occasionally, stories surface to prove him right.

Police in the far southeastern city of Van recently found a young woman hanging in her family's barn. Her relatives insisted she had committed suicide, but it was a low-roofed building and her feet easily touched the ground.

Not all criminal families are so incompetent, though, and most evidence that murder has gone underground remains circumstantial.

Analysts note the frequency with which local women kill themselves with guns - a weapon rarely used by female suicides elsewhere in the world.

A women's rights activist in Van, Zelal Ozgokce thinks some women's fate lies in an ill-defined area between murder and suicide. She cites the case of one 30-year-old forced back to her parents' house after being kicked out by her husband. Her return was a breach of the local wisdom that "women are born in their father's house and die in their husband's", and her father locked her up in a cowshed and fed her on scraps. When a local NGO saved her months later, she could no longer speak. "Had she died, would it have been suicide or murder?" Ozgokce asks.