On 31st August 2017, the Hong Kong Child Fatality Review Panel, a government sponsored body established in 2008, published its Third Report.
The Panel examined 206 child fatalities reported in the Coroner’s Court in 2012-2013. Of the 75 deaths ascribed to unnatural causes, child suicide made up over a quarter of those deaths, with 20 children having taken their own lives. The youngest child to commit suicide was 11 years old. Most of the children who committed suicide did so by jumping from a high building.
In the eight years from 2006 to 2013, a total of 105 children committed suicide. Despite some fluctuations in incidence across the years surveyed, the children’s primary reasons for committing suicide, where these are known, remain remarkably constant: school work problems, family relationship problems, worry about the future and boyfriend/girlfriend problems (see Chart 7.4.2).
It would be unfair to say the Hong Kong Government has not taken steps to address the worrying statistics around child suicide. Paul Yip, the founding Director of the Centre for Suicide Research & Prevention at Hong Kong University noted that “More resources have been spent to equip teachers to detect students who need help, to create more space for students and teachers to build up the relationship, to improve the referral system, involving hospitals, social workers and teachers, for students in need.”
However LegCo member Shiu Ka-chun has criticized the government for the tone of some of the resources it has developed for teachers and earlier this year high school students addressed LegCo directly to challenge research findings that minimized a link between education pressure and student suicide.
The consistent incidence of child suicide, and the causes thereof, in particular worry about school-work, raises children’s rights questions. For example, Art. 6 of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) provides that “States Parties recognize that every child has the inherent right to life. States Parties shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child”. Art 12 provides that the “child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.” Hong Kong is a signatory to the UNCRC, yet I have not been able to find mention of children’s rights relating to prevention of suicide or Hong Kong’s obligation to its children under the Convention in any of the establishment’s reports or responses, not even in this most recent report from the Child Fatality Review Panel, a body whose members are keenly engaged in the prevention of avoidable child fatalities. Even if explicit reference to children’s rights is deemed ‘unnecessary’ to the actual implementation of those rights, when the steps being taken by the Administration to address child suicide are criticized as inappropriate by law-makers and children themselves, then are these steps really adequate in the context of fulfilling Hong Kong’s obligations under the UNCRC? The specially convened LegCo meeting to hear directly from children about the pressures of academic expectations and school-work ‘Hong Kong style’ is to be welcomed. However, it is a ‘one-off’. Moreover, the Third Report of the Child Fatality Review Panel expressly states that in the majority of child suicides between 2012-2013, the children in question expressed their suicidal ideations but they were either not heard or their views were not actively addressed or given weight.
The Child Fatality Review Panel has said that its purpose is to prevent avoidable child deaths by enhancing social welfare processes, particularly by strengthening cross-sector, multi-disciplinary input. In relation to child suicide, this could be achieved by establishing a Children’s Commission. Such a body would have the expertise to develop appropriate materials for children at risk of suicide and for those who know and work with them, to set up child-friendly, child-accessible communication channels to provide children with expert support. The Commission would also provide a high profile, dedicated channel to gather children’s views and to embed those views within broader child-centred expert knowledge for those who make and implement laws and policies relating to children in Hong Kong. During her successful campaign to be elected as Chief Executive, Carrie Lam Yuet-ngor said she was positive about the inauguration of a Children’s Commission. Surely, the Child Fatality Review Panel’s bleak findings on child suicide are the final impetus the Chief Executive needs to take action and come good on her promise to appoint a Commissioner for the Children of Hong Kong?
If you’re interested in contributing to the discussion about how to establish a Children’s Commission in Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Committee on Children’s Rights is hosting a Roundtable on Saturday 23rd September from 2pm-5.30pm at the Central Plaza, Wan Chai. Sign up here to attend
CIF Voices is a collaborative effort amongst multi-disciplinary professionals working with children's issues around the world. Views presented are those of individual contributors and not the Children's Issues Forum.