News & Reports

Student Suicides Surge in Tunisia

TUNIS, Tunisia—After failing three time to pass his exams and having been dismissed from the faculty of science, Ahmed Bin Jeddo decided to throw himself off the top of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research building.

“They refused to let me pursue my education, [using] my repeated failure [as an argument],” Bin Jeddo said.

In Tunisia, students who fail an academic year three times are prevented from completing their studies. The decision is not new, though. What is new is the increasing number of students who use suicide and other violent means to express their anger and despair about their country’s education system, echoing broader political protests.

Tunisia was home to Mohammed Bouazizi, who doused and set himself alight as an act of protest against the way local officials treated him in December 2010.

Bin Jeddo was not alone when he tried to commit suicide. One of his classmates —who grappled with the same problem—accompanied him.

“The university is our only path to a better future. They deprived us of the future; we had no other options,” Bin Jeddo said. His attempt was thwarted at the last minute.

“This is not normal […] this is a real danger that we need to face,” said Samira Merhi, Minister of Women Family and Children’s Affairs, in a statement to the local media.

In Kairouan, a city located about 100 miles south of the capital Tunis, a number of students put gallows in the university yard, threatening to commit suicide if the minister’s decision was not revoked.

Another group of law students in Sfax, in south ofTunisia, tried to commit suicide by hanging themselves. They were rescued, and fellow students boycotted the university in solidarity with their classmates. Others went into an open-ended hunger strike in protest against the arbitrary decision.

The students’ attempts to commit suicide and the widespread public anger pushed the ministry to allow failing students to continue their studies for a fourth year. This decision, though, is only applicable for the current academic year.

If the problem is solved for the time being, suicide rates are also on the rise among children. Last year, Tunisia witnessed 203 attempted suicide and suicide cases, 8.9 percent of which were children according to a report by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights.

Fear, insecurity, and inability to dream about a better future were among the factors that led children, especially in marginalized and poor areas, to end their lives, according to the report.  Also, the pressure to perform well in school was a possible motivation for many cases, the report said.

Shiraz, 12 years old, who lived in El Kef in northwestern Tunisia, hanged herself from a tree after leaving a letter to her parents.  “Mother, father, forgive me. I didn’t like going to the dormitory and you insisted I do. I suffered a great deal, and I can no longer take the suffering,” she reportedly wrote in a letter.

Shiraz’s parents had her board at the school because the commute was too expensive, and she said she was mistreated there.

Two other children, 8 and 9 years old, committed suicide by hanging themselves due to their school bad grades in Gabès city, south-eastern Tunisia.

In Bizerte, seven female students around the age of 16 tried to commit suicide by drinking mouse poison after a fight with their school administration.

“I sent my daughter to learn, not to commit suicide,” said Mohamed Saad Jamali, the father of one of the students who attempted suicide. “I will never send her again to the school. It is no longer a place for learning, but for violence.”

Many questions have been raised about the effect of pressure on students to perform well, because the number of suicide cases was especially high last December, when first-term grades were released.

“Educational institutions are abandoning their role of education,” said Abdul Sattar Sahbani, the director of the Tunisian Social Observatory, which supervised the Forum report. Sahbani pointed to the lack of recreational activities and absence of psychological guidance in schools. “No one listens to the students.”

The Ministry of Education refused to comment on the accusations holding it responsible, while the Ministry of Women Family and Children’s Affairs says it is working with the Ministry of Health to develop a strategy to address the phenomenon of youth suicide and attempted suicide.

“It’s not a policy issue; this phenomenon needs to be opened up for dialogue among teachers, students and parents,” Sahbani said.
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