On Wednesday, the story of two women from Mumbai, who were said to be in a relationship and attempted suicide after they were forbidden from seeing each other, grabbed headlines. While one of them died, the other survived after she was rushed to the hospital.
On the morning of August 27, Aditi*, a resident of Chunnabhatti in Mumbai hung herself from the ceiling after hearing that her neighbour, Sheetal* had consumed phenyl (a disinfectant) in an attempt to kill herself. The previous day, the two had been spotted by one of their relatives and Sheetal’s father, on finding this out, forbade her from seeing Aditi, the police said. He also sought the help of a local political worker who allegedly scolded both the girls.
Heartbroken, both girls attempted suicide. But while Sheetal was taken to the hospital and survived, Aditi was found dead. The police have arrested Sheetal's father and booked him for abetment to suicide and criminal intimidation. The political worker, Mahendra Nakte, who has been booked under the same charges, is on the run.
The police are yet to confirm the survivor's age. “The matter is very sensitive,” said Sunil Bhosale, senior police inspector of Chunabhatti police station. “The investigation is on.”
Stories like that of Aditi and Sheetal are far from the exception – instances of young men and women in same-sex relationships being harassed by their parents, communities and the police are alarmingly common.
Sahayatrika, a support group for lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in Kerala said that 22 young women in the state had committed suicide under similar circumstances between 1995 and 2003. That was just data from cases reported in the newspapers.
Since March 2014, LGBT rights group Humsafar Trust has dealt with 12 cases in Mumbai alone where couples were either contemplating suicide or were deeply depressed or had faced some kind of harassment or coercion by family or neighbours over their sexuality.
“This is a large number and the nature of these cases is very worrying,” said Koninika Roy, advocacy manager, Humsafar Trust. “The reaction of parents in such cases is shocking. It is harrowing to hear the women speak. They are full of guilt and they want understanding from their families, but they don’t get it.”
For instance, in April, two young women ran away from their homes in Mumbai. They had met in college and had fallen in love, but after being harassed by their families and fearing social ostracism, they decided to leave the city. “I was scared of society, my family, the issue of caste and the issue of gender,” said a letter sent from one of them to Roy. “… we became sure our families will not accept us.”
When the couple was traced shortly afterwards, the two were brought to the local police station. "At the police station we expressed our love for each other and wanted to stay together," the letter said. "But they refused [to listen] and took our parents’ side and gave us the suggestion that we should marry a boy and live happily." The girls then “begged the police” to listen.
Towards the end of the letter, the writer’s desperation and helplessness became increasingly evident. "I am helpless and [my partner] and I will die now we have decided as there is no hope for help…"
The two women were forced to return home. Their mobile phones were taken from them and their parents placed them under house arrest.
"Luckily I got a chance today to send you a mail begging you to help me… You are our last hope. I beg you to help me,” the letter said.
With the help of Humsafar and Sneha, another non-profit, the women managed to leave their homes and are now living together. Humsafar has also been counselling the parents of both the women.
Roy narrated another story of two women who ran away from their homes and came to Mumbai, seeking the Humsafar Trust’s help. The father of the younger of the two had been monitoring her movements, did not let her leave the house and was pressurising her to marry, prompting them to flee.
All of a piece
This is all of a piece with the situation across the years and across the country, where women’s bodies, sexuality and life choices are tightly reined in by familial and social pressures, said activists.
“It is really saddening, the way families can be insensitive,” said Vinay Chandran, counsellor and executive director of Swabhava Trust, an LGBT rights group in Bangalore. “The risk of depression [in the queer community] is also much higher because of the kind of control women are subjected to India… the pressure of dealing with family and expectations.”
If incidents of young women in relationships being driven to commit suicide were to be plotted on a map and along a timeline, there would be a dot in almost each year and each state.
For instance, in 2001 in Kerala two tribal girls were found dead near an irrigation canal after their families refused to let them marry. In 2008, in Chennai, two women set themselves on fire, after their families tried to separate them. In 2011, in Nandigram in West Bengal, two women killed themselves, stating in their suicide note that they could not live without one another. And in 2013, two young women fled to Bangalore from Kerala, hoping to find acceptance and live together away from their disapproving families. But the father of one of filed a kidnapping case against the other. The women then approached Sangama, a support group that works for the rights of sexual minorities in Bangalore.
“For every such case, there might be several others that don’t come to light,” said Manohar Elavarthi, founder of Sangama.
Deepa Vasudevan, founder-member of Sahayatrika, which had collected data on the number of women in same-sex relationships who had committed suicide in Kerala, said that a majority of such cases involve young women from lower-middle class backgrounds or small towns who are faced with the pressure to marry a man or are forced to separate from their partners. “What’s distressing is that there is more awareness now and but this is still happening,” she said.
In India, queer men and women do not have the law on their side. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalises sexual acts considered “against the order of nature” – an ambiguous definition that is taken to include homosexual sex. Though there have been several attempts to have the section repealed, the Supreme Court, which, in 2013, had overturned the 2009 decision of the Delhi High Court to decriminalise homosexuality, is yet to give its final verdict on the issue.
However, there has been no known case of a woman being prosecuted under this section. But activists said this is not the only law that can be used to harass queer people, especially women.
A post on the blog for We're Here and Queer! Women in Bangalore, a support group for lesbian, bisexual and transgender women, said:
“It's also important to realise that there are other laws that have been used much more commonly to oppress queer women, and to separate couples by force, especially by disapproving families: Section 340 (wrongful confinement), Section 361 (kidnapping), Section 362 (abduction)… Section 368 (concealment/confinement of a kidnapped person), and Habeas Corpus writs, among others. We need to voice our concerns about the misuse of all of these laws (because unlike Section 377, they all do have their place for protecting our rights in some sense), and bring up the issues facing queer women in the LGBTQ discourse in India.”
A step in time
Though no India-specific studies are available, international research has shown that queer people are more likely to be prone to depression and suicidal tendencies. Of the calls made to Aasra, the 24-hour suicide prevention helpline in Mumbai, about 10% to 12% are from queer people.
“They call with issues related to identity, social support, acceptance, what their future holds for them,” said Johnson Thomas, director of Aasra. “Our motto is to address the suicide ideation and relieve their tension by getting to them speak about their emotions related to the problem.”
However, to bring about acceptance, there should also be support and counselling for parents of queer people, activists said – an area in which India is sorely lacking.
“It is very important to have a support mechanism for parents,” said Sonal Giani, founder of Umang, a support group for lesbians, bisexual women and transgenders. “They are frightened of the social situation they will have to face… Since the situation is more restrictive for women and family policing is higher, women often end up taking drastic steps.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities of the couple.