Sanjida Islam Nova, first girl of her class at Uttara's Bangamata Sheikh Fazilatunnessa Government High School, killed herself on May 8, 2017. Family members found her body early in the morning. Just the night before, she had stayed up late chatting with her family.
Nova (as she was called by her family) was a talented student and had hopes of joining the air force or army, according to her paternal uncle, Nasir Uddin. She achieved a 4.73 GPA but had hoped for a GPA-5 in her SSC examinations. Her uncle consoled her saying, “Not getting a GPA-5 is not a problem. You can make up for it in your HSC exams. You can still get admitted to universities with a minimum GPA of 3.5.”
Nova's family is in shock and grief because they do not understand why she suddenly took her own life. Nasir insists that Nova's parents did not pressure her to achieve a Golden A+ (scoring 80+ in every subject) or GPA-5 (A+ or an overall average of 80+). “We are an educated family, we are not like that,” he says, close to tears.
Going by this account, Nova had achieved quite well in her examinations and, seemingly, had family support. She had also not apparently displayed warning signs of suicide such as loss of interest in activities or withdrawal from friends and family. She did, however, experience what many perceive as a 'failure' in their education—not getting a GPA-5 in the SSC exams.
Is a culture of achieving GPA-5 and Golden A+ driving Bangladeshi students to suicide? The recent spate of student suicides in the week immediately following SSC results being published seems to suggest so. It is no longer enough to pass in these examinations; students aim for the best possible grades. Failing to reach this is, for an increasing number of students, making life not worth living.
Since May 4 when the SSC, Dakhil, and vocational examination results were published, at least 13 cases of suicide due to failure to pass and grade dissatisfaction have been reported. Seven of the deaths occurred on the very day results were published. The victims are all 16 to 17 years old.
In Shariatpur, Shamim killed himself after failing to pass 2 subjects (mathematics and accounting). Hridoy Biswas and Arifa Begum in Magura, and Dakhil examinee Pori Akter in Pirojpur, all took their lives after failing to pass the exams. In Chittagong, Md Soharab Tasfique took his life unsatisfied with having obtained a 3.77 GPA, as did Dakhil examinee Shamim Mandal in Gaibandha.
In Jamalpur, Sharmin Akhter committed suicide after failing to pass in the SSC exams. But this time, there was also collateral damage. Sharmin jumped down in the train tracks and was crushed by an incoming train, along with her pregnant aunt, who was trying to save her.
These students all took their lives on May 4, the very day their results came out.
On the day after results were published (May 5), NM Dipu killed himself in Jatrabari having learnt that he achieved a 4.95 GPA, against his expectations of a GPA-5. Jesy Akter, Saobia Sabrin and Tahmina Akter in Feni killed themselves, frustrated after failing to pass the SSC examinations.
On May 6, Popy Akhter, a Dakhil examinee in Savar also took her life after failing to pass the Dakhil examinations. Nova's suicide followed 2 days later.
These cases of student suicide are usually buried in the back pages while students joyously displaying the 'V' sign on results day dominate the front pages every year. In achieving GPA-5 or the exclusive Golden A+, the latter students have supposedly gained victory. The front page stories almost always fail to mention the shame of those who have not managed to get 'perfect' results.
In many cases, suicide is caused by mental illness such as depression. However, suicidal thoughts or behaviour may be difficult for parents and educators to grasp in a country where mental health is stigmatised.
“Internal pressure to achieve a GPA-5 or golden A+ is strong within students, often more so than expectations from parents and pressure at school,” says psychiatrist Dr. M. A. Mohit Kamal. He adds that some students who lack the capacity to cope with failing to achieve the highest grades may then commit impulsive suicide.
Students in Bangladesh are indoctrinated to believe that for admission into top public universities such as Dhaka University, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology and Dhaka Medical College, nothing short of perfect scores SSC-onwards will do.
Asfia Anwar, a student of BAF Shaheen College in Mohakhali, passed her SSC exams with flying colours achieving a Golden A+. At the time, she says she was fueled by her desire not to be outdone by her friends and peers at school. “I have to get a Golden GPA-5 in my HSC exams too because otherwise I won't stand a chance at admission in DU and BUET.”
This perception stands strong though the minimum requirement for admission into the above universities is a GPA of 3.5. Furthermore, SSC and HSC results are assessed alongside, not instead of, performance in the admission test of universities.
Of the reported suicides, several of the students decided to take the monumental decision to end their lives due to failing one or two subjects out of a total of 13 students sit for at the SSC examinations.
In cases of lower grades than expectation, Dr. Kamal recommends immediate support following the release of SSC results. “Parents should reassure their children that they can retake exams and family and friends should stay by their side.” He stresses that warning signs of depression and suicide should be acted upon immediately – first, parents should try to talk to their children and then encourage them to talk to counselors. More preventive measures can be to ensure building up self-confidence and coping capacity in students from childhood.
The wanton human cost of education is a sign of the institutional and societal failure to protect students. Our education system trains students to prepare for three big exams – SSC, HSC, and university entrance exams. The SSC and equivalent examinations at the end of 10th grade is just the first hurdle. And, as seen, the casualties are already piling up.