Preventing Maternal Suicide in a Land Healing From War

Editor’s Note: This article contains disturbing stories of maternal suicide.

Sasiliya had survived the civil war in Sri Lanka, but her own personal war was just beginning. She was pregnant with her second child. Her husband, Ramesh, was violent and often drunk. They lived in a one-room home, and Ramesh often spent his meager earnings on alcohol instead of providing for his family. When Sasiliya discovered she was pregnant, the thought of bringing a new life into such a world was too much.

She resolved to take her life.

After two failed suicide attempts, Sasiliya finally cut her wrists and lay down beside her drunk, unconscious husband on the cold cement floor of their shabby home and waited to die.

Maternal mental health disorders and maternal suicide affect women worldwide. But they affect women in poverty disproportionately.

Worldwide, about 13% of new moms experience a mental disorder, usually depression. But in developing countries that number is nearly 20%.

These statistics aren’t just a number to Victoria. They are a reality.

A woman who fights maternal suicide wears a brown dress standing in a church.

Victoria is a Survival implementor. She too is a survivor of the civil war in Sri Lanka, which ended in 2009. According to the United Nations, 40,000 Sri Lankans lost their lives. Thousands more remain missing.

Victoria lost her husband in the war. She knows the challenges of raising a family alone. This has motivated her to devote her life to bringing love to the widows and single mothers who are struggling to find hope and purpose in the wake of civil war.

In her work with Compassion’s Survival Program, she regularly visits vulnerable moms, helping them access the physical care they need to give birth to and raise healthy babies.

But often the care these moms need goes far deeper than physical support.

Following a tip from a friend, Victoria went to Sasiliya’s home to meet with the distraught mom.

“The house was quiet,” says Victoria. “I peeked inside and saw Sasiliya lying on the floor half-conscious. There was so much blood and so many empty bottles of alcohol everywhere.”

When Victoria called out, Sasiliya asked her to leave — she was afraid her husband would awaken. But Victoria did not leave. She took action on behalf of Sasiliya and her unborn baby, ensuring they survived. She then registered them in the Survival Program.

Slowly, she gained the young mother’s trust.

Three women stand outside of a metal sheet home, one holding a baby.

“I talked with her every day for a month, urging her to remain strong for the sake of her child,” says Victoria.

Sasiliya started attending Survival meetings once a week, getting to know other young moms in her community. The support of Victoria and the other social workers went well beyond giving her vital physical support. They showed compassion and love and gave her hope. They walked alongside her and helped her overcome her suicidal thoughts and depression.

In time, Sasiliya’s husband, Ramesh, became willing to talk with Victoria. Through counseling, he has changed his behavior. Realizing his responsibility to care for his family, he has begun to work hard to provide for his family. He even repaired their dilapidated house, building a toilet and a fence.

Now Sasiliya is experiencing a promising new start. Her baby, Nithusick, is a healthy 1-year-old, and Sasiliya’s firstborn, Rishanth, 11, is enrolled in the church’s sponsorship program.

A woman in a yellow dress holds a baby.

“My son and I are alive because of Survival,” says Sasiliya. “I will not hurt myself anymore because now I know my family will be fine.”

Udea is another mother Victoria has rescued from maternal suicide.

A woman holding a toddler and a girl walk down a dirt road.

Udea was desperate. When she became pregnant with her second child, the father abandoned them. After she gave birth, she and her children didn’t have food for three days. No one helped them. In her community, if a mother can’t prove who the father of her child is, she will become an outcast.

“If a young woman is pregnant without a husband, that girl will be shamed in society and humiliated and tortured,” Victoria explains.

Afraid of her community, Udea made a plan. She would find someone to sell her child to, and then she would kill herself.

But God intervened.

Victoria was on her regular rounds in the community when she met Udea, frightened and desperate. From the day they met, Victoria regularly visited Udea to make sure she wouldn’t hurt herself or her child.

“She could be silent for hours because she didn’t trust anyone,” Victoria says. “I spent three to four hours with her because I wanted her to understand that she should not sell or hurt her child, that she should trust God and not fear people because God will protect her.”

Two women sit on the floor talking with a toddler sitting on the ground.

She enrolled Udea into the Survival Program and provided her with food and physical care. Through the program, and in partnership with another local nonprofit, they proved the child’s paternity and secured monthly alimony for her. Now Udea’s baby girl has a name – Rebeaka. She is 1 year old, healthy and happy.

“If not for Survival, I would have sold my child to someone and I would have committed suicide,” says Udea. “I’m very grateful to Victoria. To me, she is not just a teacher or church staff; she is my friend and sister.”

We praise God for all the workers like Victoria who are dedicated to helping moms and babies.

A group of women dressed in traditional Sri Lankan dress.

They are the heroes who bring hope in a world rife with tragedy. Together, they are tackling the huge issues of maternal suicide, infant mortality and hopelessness with compassion. They are bringing a sense of worth and purpose to what are seemingly hopeless situations. If you want to join Victoria in her work, you can learn more about our worldwide Survival Program here.

*If you are in a suicidal crisis or emotional distress, please call the toll-free Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. Words by Edwin Estioko and Amber Van Schooneveld.

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