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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (November 12, 2001 -- Agence France-Presse)---It is no mystery how bright 13-year-old Vandhana Vikashni died -- she hanged herself.

The mystery is why she and three other girls in the pleasant little Fijian market town of Labasa last week killed themselves, two of them by drinking the herbicide paraquat.

The South Pacific might be something of a paradise, but suicide is its dark secret -- and while the figures are patchy, anecdotal evidence points to a resurgence after suicide rates dropped in the 1990s. Paraquat, a painful, inevitable death, is again featuring.

Samoans and Fiji Indians have the world's highest female suicide rates and the overall figures for the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Marshall Islands, Samoa and Fiji are among the highest anywhere.

Even French Polynesia, among the most developed island countries, is experiencing high rates, while New Zealand, with a heavy Polynesian population, has some of the highest developed world youth suicide levels. Indigenous Hawaiians have much higher suicide rates than others in the state.

In Fiji there is speculation that the high youth suicide rate is a consequence of a school examination system that discriminates against Indians -- 44 percent of the population -- in the awarding of scholarships and places in schools.

The Labasa deaths led to newspaper letters and Internet bulletin board debate. One writer said Fiji students were being terrorized by annual do-or-die exams between the age of 11 and 18.

"These exams brutalize students and are a scourge," the writer said.

Fiji Teachers Union official Kamlesh Arya told state radio parents were putting too much pressure on their children.

"While we all want our children to excel, I don't think we want anything more than what their ability is and if they have failed in school then it's not the end of their total life that they have," Arya said.

Vandhana had just sat for the Class Eight exam to determine whether she could go to high school next year. She scored 427 marks out of 500.

Her father, farm laborer Kamla Prasad, told the Daily Post in Suva that his daughter had the third highest mark in class. "My daughter passed her exam and not just passed, but passed with good marks," he said. But she had wanted to come top at school to win a scholarship and become an accountant.

"Last Friday, after getting her marks and until the time she hanged herself, she looked very sad indeed, depressed and disturbed," Prasad said.

"Now that she is gone, we are left only her dream to be the best. Perhaps she felt that she was not good but I want to tell the world that I am really proud of my daughter. She did well in her exam and I am sure that if she had continued like this, she could have touched the sky."

Rohini Renuka Reddy, 14, drank paraquat last week. She had scored 222 out of 500.

Paraquat was first synthesized in 1882 but recognized as a herbicide in 1955 by ICI, now Zeneca. Its high toxicity and its involvement in suicide around the world (700 cases in 10 years in Malaysia, for example) have led to bans and strict controls.

A Malaysian National Poison Centre study says death may occur within several hours to a few days as a result of multiple organ failure. There is no antidote.

A recent study by Shamima Ali of the Fiji Women's Crisis Centre claimed last year's Fiji coup had driven suicide rates to their highest ever levels, with a 200 percent jump in the last two years.

Academic Ron Crocombe, in the latest edition of the academic text The South Pacific, said suicides in the FSM, the Marshalls and Palau have gone from around five to 10 a year in the 1960s to around 40 a year now.

Clinical depression associated with suicide in the western world is mostly absent in Pacific suicides, and few of the victims are mentally unbalanced. "A major cause has been diagnosed as the erosion of social structures and values, leaving many young people marginalized and insecure," he wrote.

In Samoa, where 70 percent of suicides are among males, Crocombe points to authoritarian child rearing and the traditional view that youths are expected to serve and obey.

"They are little consulted until they become matai (chiefs or family heads), a status most Samoan men achieve in their 30s, but most women never achieve."

Studies in Micronesia show most suicides are among males between 15 and 24, who hang themselves after incidents of conflict with their parents.

A study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry last year said suicide among native populations is a significant problem worldwide and noted it was a particular problem in the Pacific, although little study had been carried out.

"Anthropologically, a common thread among these groups is the relatively sudden contact with western culture, domination by the western culture, and greater or lesser degrees of acculturative stress," the study said.

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail: [email protected]  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website:  Website:

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