Female Suicide and Wife Abuse
in Cross Cultural Perspective

Dorothy A. Counts
University of Waterloo

1987. Counts, Dorothy A. Female Suicide and Wife Abuse in Cross Cultural Perspective. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior 17(3):194-204. This manuscript differs slightly from the published version. Please cite from the published version.

The sounds of angry shouts were followed by the keening cries of the young wife as she climbed the stile over the fence protecting the village from marauding pigs and disappeared into the forest. It was apparent to the people in the neighboring houses that the woman had just received a beating from her husband. A few minutes later the woman's brother climbed the fence and quietly followed the path she had taken to make certain that she did not hang herself or drink poison. The concern of the young wife's brother was justified, for between 1966 and 1986 in the Kaliai area of West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea nearly all of both attempted (2 of 3) and completed (8 of 9) suicides have been by women.(1) Over half of these female suicides (1 of the attempts, 5 of the completed ones) were preceded by the woman's being beaten by her husband.

The case studies that follow will point up the relationship between wife abuse and female suicide that exists in this Melanesian society. If this phenomenon were restricted to only one or a few isolated tribal societies it could be seen as an exotic aberration, of interest only to anthropologists and scholars who delight in the study of the obscure. This is, however, not the case. Although there has been virtually no cross-cultural research on the relationship between wife abuse and female suicide, those references that do exist suggest that it is widespread and also found in complex societies, including our own. North American researchers working with battered women have found a high incidence of suicide attempts among them (Jackobson and Portuges 1978:223; Back, Post and Darcy 1982; Pagelow 1984:318; Stephens 1985), and a working paper on spouse abuse prepared as a background document for the Surgeon General's workshop on Violence and Public Health reports research findings that between 35 and 40 per cent of battered women attempt suicide (Stark and Flitcraft 1985:22). The study concludes that "abuse may be the single most important precipitant for female suicide attempts yet identified" (Ibid.). If, by examining case studies from a variety of cultures we can improve our understanding of the dynamics that exist between wife abuse and female suicide, this understanding should be of value to professionals who must help those who are caught in what seems to be a widespread and pervasive destructive pattern of behavior.

Samsonic Suicide and Wife Abuse

Since 1966, David Counts and I have been conducting anthropological field research among the Lusi-speaking people of the Kaliai electoral district of West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea. The self-caused deaths occurring among these people have been the focus of earlier research in which I interpreted suicide as a culturally recognized behaviour that permits politically powerless persons to affect the behaviour of the more powerful members of their society, or at least allows them to revenge themselves on those who have made their lives intolerable (Counts, 1980, 1985. Counts and Counts, 1984). In Kaliai those persons are usually women. For Kaliai women, suicide provides a means for vengeance because a woman knows that if she follows the rules for committing suicide, then she can expect her surviving kin to seek either revenge or the payment of compensation from the persons who drove her to her death, or both. Rules for the enactment of a meaningful suicide are implicit in the myths, legends, and folk tales of Kaliai and are communicated at story-telling and gossip sessions where people discuss past suicides and evaluate the consequences of the act. The rules for a person who intends to kill herself are as follows:

(1) She should warn others of her intent -- by destroying her personal possessions, for example -- rather than performing the act impulsively or in secret.

(2) She should dress herself in her finest clothing.

(3) She should kill herself in the presence of others or where they will be certain to find her body, and

(4) She should communicate to others the identity of the individual who is responsible for her death. She may, for instance, address a letter to the guilty party telling him of her death, or she may call his name as she drinks poison. This message is so important to the correct completion of a meaningful suicide that survivors may even report that it has been given by the suicide's ghost.

The usual methods of suicide are by drinking poison, hanging, or leaping from the top of a tree. Sometimes two or more of these methods are combined. If she follows these procedures, a suicidal person can reasonably expect her kin and friends to consider her to have been the victim of homicide -- to have been killed by shameful slander or abuse: to have been "killed with talk." Even if they were indifferent to her suffering before her death, they quickly coalesce into a grieving community anxious to see justice done. If they do not avenge her death, her survivors can expect to see her ghost wandering near the edge of the village at dusk, reminding them that they have not done their duty. Following a suicide, the person held culpable for the death is potentially in physical danger, for the suicide's kin may either attack him or engage a sorcerer to kill him. At the very least, he must expect to pay a large compensation to the survivors, and even then he lives in fear that the angry, grieving relatives may contract for his death by sorcery. This fear, as we will see in the case examples below, is a realistic one.

This type of suicide, self-killing as an act of anger and shame with the intent of injuring someone else, was first called "samsonic suicide" by Jeffreys who found it among African populations (1952). It has wide distribution and has been reported among the Zaire of Africa (Wymeersch 1986), the Aguaruna Jivaro of Peru (Siverts 1982; Brown 1982, 1986), and among the Fore (Berndt 1962), the Hagen (Strathern 1972), the Maenge (Panoff 1977), the Maring (Healey 1979), and the Gainj (Johnson 1981) of Papua New Guinea, to mention only a few. Among all of these peoples, suicide is an institutionalized and culturally recognized alternative for those who are abused, shamed and powerless, permitting them to shift the burden of humiliation from themselves to their tormentors and to enjoy some measure of vengeance against those who drove them to the act.

During my first four periods of field research in Kaliai between 1966 and 1981, I was present in the village when one suicide -- that of a sixteen-year-old girl was committed -- and obtained information on three attempted suicides and seven other completed ones. When I returned to Kaliai in July, 1985 for an additional three months of research I found a dramatic surge in the number of female suicides: between June and October four women killed themselves, three after being beaten by their husbands. Altogether, five of the completed female suicides and one of the attempts followed an episode in which the woman was beaten by her husband. The case studies presented below briefly describe the contexts of these suicides.

Case Studies

1. Galiki, a woman from a distant village, married Akono, the son of an important man who was frequently absent from home.(2) Although her behaviour was reported to be irreproachable, Akono believed that she was conducting an affair during his absence, and beat her frequently and severely. Her death followed a prolonged beating. Although they disagreed as to the agent (some said household bleach, others said rotenone poison or an overdose of chloroquine phosphate, a readily available malaria suppressant), the people (who were Akono's close kin) who heard Galiki's last words agreed that she took poison. Consequently, her death was officially listed as suicide by a local health official. Although many villagers accept this interpretation of Galiki's death, others argue that she died as a result of fatal injuries suffered during the beatings. Her husband paid compensation to her relatives, as is appropriate following a suicide.

Galiki's death was an ambiguous one, for she did not follow the rules for suicide. Specifically, she did not prepare for her death by destroying her property and dressing in her finery. Instead she was apparently engaged in an ordinary household task (preparing a meal for her children) when she, impulsively, quit her work and drank poison. Although she left no clear message assigning culpability for her death, others reported seeing her ghost whose message assigned guilt to her husband.

Although these circumstances make Galiki's death ambiguous, the fact that it is considered by local officials and by many members of the community to be a suicide highlights the fact that in this society suicide is a reasonable and culturally valid response to abuse. Although traditional norms do not make a significant distinction between physical homicide and the culpable death that occurs when a person is driven to kill herself, the Papua New Guinea legal code does. Culpability for suicide is not recognized as a criminal offence by the law of Papua New Guinea. Homicide is. Had suicide not been among the ways in which an abused wife might reasonably be expected to respond, the police would likely have charged Galiki's husband with homicide.(3)

2. Sharon, a married woman with a number of young children, became pregnant, allegedly as a result of an affair with her husband's classificatory brother. On the night following a 1979 celebration in a neighboring village, Sharon did not return home but, reportedly, spent the night with her lover. Her husband, Paul, met her on her return to the village the next morning and the two quarreled violently. That afternoon she went alone to the seep spring where women wash clothing and drank household bleach. She died of the self-administered poison without attributing responsibility for her act. Although none disagreed that Sharon was involved in an adulterous affair, her death was ambiguous because she did not follow the rules of procedure for a meaningful suicide. The villagers with whom I discussed Sharon's death disagreed about the meaning of it and culpability for it. Some held her husband responsible, others thought that she killed herself because of the shame of her affair, while others argued that she had been the victim of love magic and that a woman caught between love magic and a violent husband might think that she had no option other than suicide. "If a woman is beaten too severely," observed one informant, "she may think suicide is her only choice."

Although Sharon's husband paid compensation to her parents for her death, her father held Paul responsible and reportedly engaged a sorcerer to kill him. Paul died in 1984 after a brief illness. In a village moot following the death, the sorcerer admitting working malevolent magic against Paul as an agent of Sharon's father.

3. Belinda was at the area playground playing competitive basketball. As they walked home after the game, her husband berated her for her behavior in flirting with men and beat her. She prepared a concoction of battery acid and drank it. Her husband paid compensation to her parents.

4. Ethel, a woman from the New Guinea Highlands, remained at the government station at Cape Gloucester rather than accompany her husband, Raphael, to his work-posting in Kaliai, saying that she feared the sea and did not want to live in an isolated area. Their separation was a source of friction between the couple, and on one trip to Cape Gloucester to visit her, Raphael reportedly accused Ethel of having an affair with a man at the government station and beat her. In response Ethel hanged herself. Her body was flown to her home area for burial, and Raphael's kin paid a large compensation payment to Ethel's relatives. In spite of this, Ethel's kinsmen met Raphael's plane when he returned to the Highlands and hacked him to pieces with axes as he stepped off the airplane.

5. Barbara drank rotenone fish poison after being beaten by her husband. I have no further details of her death.

6. Ruth fought repeatedly with her co-wife and, on one occasion, returned her husband's blow when he intervened on behalf of the other woman. Her enraged husband knocked her unconscious and later asked for the performance of a ceremony that enjoined her from hitting back in the future, explaining that he feared he would lose control of himself and kill her should she do so. She responded by attempting suicide following her next beating. Her action apparently influenced her husband's behaviour, because although she continued fighting with her co-wife her husband did not again publicly shame her and did not beat her again for over a year.

The Lusi-Kaliai consider violence to be a normal and expected part of the relationship between spouses. Most of my consultants, both male and female, state that all men beat their wives at some time: in fact it seems that they have the right to do so. In one case when a marital fight escalated to include the wife's mother, the wife was heard to shout at her husband, "Who are you to hit her? You have no right to beat her. She's not your wife!"

There is no hard and fast rule as to when violence ceases to be reasonable and becomes abuse, and complaints have to do with specific cases in which women consider that they or their kinswomen were beaten unjustly or too severely. Women particularly resent beatings that they consider to be unjustified and they expect that, after a few blows, a reasonable husband will listen to their explanations. One of my female consultants with whom I was discussing a severe beating that we had both witnessed commented, "When a man just keeps beating a woman, when he won't let her explain or hear what she has to say, that's the kind of treatment that causes a woman to kill herself." A woman who is struck repeatedly when she attempts to speak is said to have ailolo sasi 'a bad stomach', a condition that is a mixture of anger, shame, and despair and that may cause a person to kill herself.

Domestic Violence and Suicide: Cross Cultural Analysis

Although there has been little cross-cultural research on suicide and even less on spousal abuse, the data that do exist suggest that there is a complex relationship between domestic violence and suicide.

In Papua New Guinea domestic violence seems to be a normal and expected part of marital relationships (Toft, 1986 and In Press; Papua New Guinea Law Reform Commission, 1986), while suicide is widely accepted as a solution to personal problems. A study by Pataki-Schweizer notes that suicide occurs among all ethnic groups in Papua New Guinea who have been asked about it, and that it occurs more frequently among females than males. He finds that "Interpersonal conflict, often between spouses, appears as a major precipitant and 'shame,' while often present, does not appear to be the prime or dominant factor" (1985:142).

Chowning says that the Kove women of West New Britain realize that their husbands may be fond of them in spite of the fact that they beat them. Among the Kove "...a woman beaten excessively by her husband may commit suicide, but this seems to happen only when she thinks that the beatings are connected with loss of affection, because he is interested in someone else" (Chowning, 1986).

The Gainj of Papua New Guinea consider a husband to have not only the right but the duty to beat his wife if she gives cause by failing in her duties as wife, mother, or gardener or if she "exhibits willfulness" (Johnson, 1981:331). Among the Gainj only married women kill themselves. "In every case I recorded," observes Johnson, "a woman killed herself either after a fight with another woman in which her husband championed the other woman's cause, or after public physical abuse from her husband" (1981:326). According to Johnson, a woman's suicide threats may cause her husband to make concessions to her privately; he cannot do so publicly without acknowledging her power over him, a situation that a Gainj man would find intolerable. "Indeed," says Johnson, "the standard public response of men to suicide threats is, 'there's a rope nearby'" (1981:333).

According to Healey, only the women of the Maring of Papua New Guinea commit suicide. The major context in which suicide occurs "is after severe, and physically violent, domestic arguments" (Healey, 1979:95) In three of six cases analyzed by Healey, women killed not only themselves but their young daughters after violent arguments with their husbands. Healey says:

Destruction of a child in suicide is particularly vengeful, for not only is the husband deprived of a wife, but also of children who can care for him in his old age, and who will forge new affinal alliances for him. Further, he must provide the customary death-payments for both wife and child to the woman's agnates, and face the anger and possible vengeance of his affines by physical attack or witchcraft" (96).

There is also a pattern of marital violence and suicide in Fiji and among the Aguaruna Jivaro of South America. Haynes reports that where Fijian Indian families gave reasons for the death, marital and family violence accounted for 41 percent of female suicides (1984:435). The women of the Aguaruna of northern Peru kill themselves more frequently than do men in a ratio of from 2:1 to 9:1 (Brown, 1981). In 31 percent of the cases, their relatives say that the motive for death was because the woman was scolded or beaten by either her kinsman or her spouse for failure to perform domestic duties. According to Brown, women have little control over their marital situation:

...men are often reluctant to protect their daughters or sisters from abuse by a brutal husband, except perhaps during the initial trial period of a marriage. This state of affairs changes dramatically when a woman kills herself, for then her kinsmen angrily demand an explanation from her husband -- and they also seek compensation or exact retribution through a vengeance killing. Women thus use the implicit or explicit threat of suicide to gain leverage over their husband, as a way of preventing beatings or discouraging the formation of a polygynous household....in some cases the husband may face actual physical danger if his wife's family holds him responsible for her death. (1982:7-8).

It seems that female suicide is so common among the Aguaruna that it has lost its effectiveness as a way of influencing male behaviour: men become inured to it. Brown comments, "...some men I knew were quite fatalistic, arguing that it didn't matter how they treated their wives since women are likely to kill themselves anyway" (14).


My case studies from West New Britain, and data from other Oceanic, African, and South American societies suggest that suicide may be a culturally constructed way in which a powerless person may avenge herself on her tormentor. Wife beating, a form of torment, is widespread and is associated with suicide in North American, Oceanic, and South American societies. Although the evidence is tentative, it seems that it may not be the beating itself that causes a woman to kill herself, for apparently the people -- including the women --of many cultures consider violence to be a normal part of the marriage relationship. Rather the issue seems to be whether the violence passes the bounds of normative behaviour (however a particular society defines those bounds) to become abuse, and how a woman's support group respond to it. A woman may be beaten without being abused, but if she is abused -- if she is beaten for no good reason or in an unacceptable way -- then she expects her friends and kin to champion her against her husband. If she is denied that support, an abused woman may, by following the rules governing a meaningful suicide, require her survivors to demand compensation from or take revenge on her abusive husband.

Little cross-cultural research has been done into the possible relationship between marital abuse and suicide, but it is clear that there these two forms of violence are related in a complex and significant way. The conclusion of Stark and Flitcraft, that in North America "abuse may be the single most important precipitant for female suicide attempts yet identified" seems to be true in many other societes, and may indeed be a common pattern. The problem demands the attention both of anthropologists who can provide insight into the cultural context in which it occurs and of specialists in the study of suicide.

References Cited

Back, Susan M., Post, Robin D. and Darcy, Genet. A Study of Battered Women in a Psychiatric Setting. Women and Therapy, 1982, 1:13-26.

Brown, Michael F. The Dark Side of Progress: Suicide Among the Alto Mayo Aguaruna. Paper delivered to 44th International Congress of Americanists, Manchester, England, 1982. Power, Gender and the Social Meaning of Aguaruna Suicide. Man 1986, 21(2), 311-328.

Chowning, Ann. Kove Women and Violence: the context of Wife- beating in a West New Britain Society. 1986. Papua New Guinea Law Reform Commission. Monograph 3. Boroko, PNG: Law Reform Commission, 72-91.

Counts, Dorothy Ayers. Fighting Back is not the Way: Suicide and the Women of Kaliai. American Ethnologist, 1980, 7:332-351.

Ambiguity in the Interpretation of Suicide: Female Death in Papua New Guinea. Paper delivered to the Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania, Salem, Mass., 1985.

Counts, Dorothy Ayers and David R. Counts. People who Act Like Dogs: Adultery and Deviance in a Melanesian Community. Paper delivered to conference on Deviance in a Cross-cultural Context. Waterloo, Ontario, 1984.

Haynes, Ruth H. Suicide in Fiji: a Preliminary Study. British Journal of Psychiatry, 1984, 145: 433-438.

Healey, Christopher. Women and Suicide in New Guinea. Social Analysis, 1979, 2:89-106.

Jacobson, Gerald and S.H. Portuges. Relation of Marital Separation and Divorce to Suicide: a Report. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, 1978, 8:217-224.

Jeffreys, M.D.W. Samsonic Suicide or Suicide of Revenge Among Africans. African Studies, 1952, 11:118-122.

Johnson, Patricia Lyons. When Dying is Better than Living: Female Suicide Among the Gainj of Papua New Guinea. Ethnology, 1981, 20:325-334.

Mushanga, T.M. Wife Victimization in East and Central Africa. Victimology, 1977-78, 2:479-485.

Pagelow, Mildred Daley. Family Violence. New York: Praeger, 1984.

Panoff, Michel. Suicide and Social Control in New Britain. Bijdragen: Tot de Taal-land-en Volkenkunde, 1977. 133:44-62.

Pataki-Schweizer, K.J. Suicide in Contemporary Papua New Guinea: an Attempt at an Overview, In Culture, Youth and Suicide in the Pacific. F.X. Hezel, Donald Rubinstein, Geoffrey M. White (editors). Honolulu: Center for Asian and Pacific Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoe, 1985.

Papua New Guinea Law Reform Commission. Domestic Violence in Papua New Guinea. Monograph No. 3. Boroko, PNG: Law Reform Commission.

Siverts, Hennig. Broken Hearts and Pots: Suicide and Patterns of Signification among the Aguaruna Jivaro of Alto Maranon, Peru. Paper delivered at the 44th International Congress of Americanists, Manchester, England, 1982.

Stark, Evan and Anne H. Flitcraft. Spouse Abuse. Working paper solicited and edited by the Violence Epidemiology Branch, Center for Health Promotion and Education, Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta, Georgia, as a background document for the Surgeon General's Workshop on Violence and Public Health, Leesburg, Virginia, October 1985.

Stephens, B. Joyce. Suicidal Women and Their Relationships With Husbands, Boyfriends, and Lovers. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, 1985, 15: 77-90.

Strathern, Marilyn. Women in Between. New York: Seminar Press, 1972.

Toft, S. (ed) Marriage and Domestic Violence in Rural Papua New Guinea. Occasional Paper 18. Boroko, PNG: Papua New Guinea Law Reform Commission. 1986. Domestic Violence in Urban Papua New Guinea. Occasional Paper 19. Boroko, PNG: Papua New Guinea Law Reform Commission. In Press.

Wymeersch, Patrick. Moord en zelfmoord. Een status quaestionis naar de reden en de gevolgen van deze sociale fenomenen in de traditionele Zairese gemeenschappen (Murder and Suicide: A Status Questionnaire on the Causes and Consequences of these Social Phenomena in Traditional Zaire Societies). Tijdschrift voor Sociale Wetenschappen, 1976, 21:331-348.


1. 1. An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the 1986 meetings of the American Association of Suicidology held in Atlanta, Georgia. The research on which it is based was supported in 1966-67 by the U.S. National Science Foundation, in 1971 by the Wenner Gren Foundation and the University of Waterloo, in 1975-76 by the Canada Council and by the University of Waterloo, and in 1981 and 1985 by the University of Waterloo and by research grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. I wish to thank Drs. Judith Brown, Ann Chowning, and David Counts for critical comments on earlier versions of this paper.

2. All names have been changed to protect individual privacy.

3. Mushanga's analysis of cases in Bohannan's volume on African homicide and suicide -- cases in which women are beaten to death by their husbands -- further suggests that the line between suicide and death following wife abuse is not always a clear one (1977-78). Mushanga, an African sociologist at the University of Nairobi, argues:

Victims do facilitate their own deaths in many ways. Sometimes the victim invites the offender to kill her or she may use offensive and provocative language which may enrage the husband....Some cases of victim-precipitated homicides in which the wife is the victim result from direct invitation. In one case, a woman, wife of the accused, took a stick and began beating her husband while encouraging him to kill her....It would appear that the new ideas about women's liberation in communities that are generally traditional may create situations in which the wife may directly or indirectly bring about her own death. This may happen as a result of a woman's attempt to assert her own rights, which may conflict with cultural patterns of behaviour and socially accepted responses of a wife towards her husband (1977-78:484).

If Mushanga's analysis is correct and African wives are behaving in a way that they know will likely result in them being beaten to death, then they may indeed be involved in a kind of suicide. There is little information given on the cultural and social context of the beating deaths, but if a woman is expected by other members of her society to facilitate her death in this way under certain circumstances, and if there are rules that govern her behaviour, and if her relatives take vengeance on her husband or demand compensation from him, then these deaths may be a variant of samsonic suicide. If not, then further research is required to determine if these are indeed self-precipitated deaths and, if they are, to place them in their cultural context.

Back to the West New Britain web page

Back to the Publications on West New Britain page

To Waterloo's Anthropology Programme home page