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In India, irrespective of region, class, community or age, married women are vulnerable to many forms of violence within the confines of their homes.

A Never-ending Trial By Fire For Women Burn Survivors

[By Pushpa Achanta]

Bengaluru (WFS) – ‘The stove exploded in the kitchen; scalding hot water fell on me by accident while I was making tea; I didn’t realise when my clothes caught fire while I was cooking…’ These are just some of the common explanations that women admitted to the burns ward of Victoria Hospital in Bengaluru, Karnataka’s state capital, give as they record their statement.

Sadly, though, these almost always are a mere cover up for the actual truth, which is both horrific and heartbreaking.

Take the case of Bengaluru resident Zarina Khatoon, whose husband set her on fire, although, not surprisingly, the 38-year-old mother-of-two told everyone that the stove had burst at home. It was several weeks before she could muster the courage to narrate the real story and register a formal complaint.

“Once a woman dares to complain against her family there are consequences. One stands to lose everything – respect, family support, and even one’s own children,”

she remarks.

Shocking as it may sound, in India, irrespective of region, class, community or age, married women are being burnt alive at the flimsiest of pretext. From being unattractive or cooking unappetising meals to bringing insufficient dowry, expressing opinions freely, talking to a neighbour or giving birth to daughters, anything and everything can infuriate and incite the husband or in-laws into unleashing their wrath.

Bride burning accounts for the death of nearly one woman every hour in India – more than 8,000 women a year. Official figures from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reveal that 8,233 women, many of them new brides, were killed in so-called dowry deaths in 2012, while the statistics for 2013 indicate that 8,083 had died in this way. Unfortunately, because this crime takes place within the confines of the home it limits the scope of intervention, as it is a considered a “personal problem”.

It was the fear of stigma and social ostracism that prevented Asha from talking about what had actually transpired the night her husband decided to get rid of her by setting her on fire. Sathya, an activist with Vimochana, a women’s rights organisation in Bengaluru, which has been assisting distressed girls and women and advocating for their rights for over 35 years, reveals,

“For Asha, who is now in her forties, it has been a long and difficult struggle to finding her feet again. It was 10 years back that her husband set her on fire right in front of their daughter, Jyoti.

Over the years, Asha has found the strength to forge on for the sake of the young girl.”

In the incident that saw Asha struggle for survival for weeks together, she lost her voice forever. Today, she communicates with the world through Jyoti.

“The sprightly adolescent, who is currently pursuing her pre-university studies, often becomes the voice of her mother.

She was very small when the episode occurred and has seen her mother fighting for life. As Asha recovered with the help of extensive treatment and counselling, she gradually gained the courage and confidence to share her story through her daughter,”

adds Satya, who has observed many women like Asha pull themselves together despite the tough odds.

“She has remained alive for her girl and has managed to secure a job that has helped her become independent even though it may be insufficient to make ends meet,”

she elaborates.

In a sense, questions like ‘how will I sustain myself and my children, who will pay for my treatment, will anyone give a disfigured person a job?’ often hold back the Ashas and Zarinas from taking a stand for themselves.

Asks Zarina,

“In a society like ours, which is obsessed with beauty and physical appearance, what chance do women like me have to gain respectable employment?”

She is not wrong. Burns survivors are anyway low on self esteem when they enter the job market and most prospective employers are not comfortable either with their appearance or circumstances, which makes it doubly difficult for them to find suitable work.

For those who do manage to secure something reasonable, their long-term medical treatment, necessary for proper physical and emotional healing, comes in the way – very often they are required to take short or extended breaks, which employers may not be ready to permit.

Indeed, it’s the combination of justice and adequate rehabilitation that can enable a survivor to regain control of her life and destiny. But neither is easy to obtain, especially if she happens to hail from a lower caste, tribal or minority community.

The fear of stigma and social ostracism prevents many women from talking about what actually transpires when they face any act of violence at the hands of their husband or intimate partner. | Pushpa Achanta\WFS

The fear of stigma and social ostracism prevents many women from talking about what actually transpires when they face any act of violence at the hands of their husband or intimate partner. | Pushpa Achanta\WFS

Yashoda P., founder-cum-convener of the Karnataka Dalit Mahila Vedike (KDMV), a forum assisting survivors of caste and gender violence in Karnataka, has vociferously championed the cause of dalit women for years. She recalls an incident where concerted action successfully landed the perpetrator in jail,

“In 2009, when a Dalit woman in Mandya district had spurned the sexual advances of a man from the dominant caste, he retaliated by attacking her violently and setting her on fire. After committing the crime, the man simply vanished. A few concerned passersby helped her and she was able to hold on for four days. However, before she died, the police was able to take her statement.

The KDMV collaborated with other human rights groups to investigate this incident and complaints were duly registered at the local police station followed by large-scale protests. Not only was the man arrested – the case is still going on in the courts – but the state government also provided the family with a compensation of Rs 1,20,000 and an assurance that the education of her minor children would be supported by it.”

Whereas the KDMV was able to rally behind this case and exercise its influence to ensure justice, it is not something that happens regularly. In fact, according to Donna Fernandes, co-founder of Vimochana, which, incidentally, has advocated relentlessly for creating a separate ward for women burns survivors in Victoria Hospital, there is a lot that still needs to be done.

She asserts,

“It is absolutely essential to strengthen the provisions under Sections 498A and 304-B of the Indian Penal Code as well as the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 that deal with women who have been set on fire by their husbands or other members of their marital family.

Such women must receive financial and other support for immediate and long-term medical treatment [physiological and psychological counselling, and so on] especially if they have sustained grievous burns. Additionally, provisions for emotional and monetary assistance must be made for their young or elderly dependants, too.”

Nonetheless, it’s the never-say-die attitude of survivors that really keeps them going. Sylvia, 33, a friendly and pragmatic vegetable vendor in Bengaluru, has been to hell and back.

“But I refuse to dwell in the past. Life has been anything but simple ever since my husband doused me in kerosene and set me on fire.

I take each day as a new challenge. Though I am educated, I did not get a job anywhere. So I am selling vegetables to earn a few hundred rupees a day to support my sons who are studying in a government school. We live with my mother, a daily wager, who contributes to household expenses as well,”

she says.

What is truly special and admirable about Sylvia is that she remains cheerful and that her melodious voice has no bitterness – just hope for a better future.

It is women like Sylvia who give Fernandes the strength to keep up the fight.

Each day, from Bengaluru alone we get four to five cases of women being burnt using kerosene. Does that mean we ban the sale of kerosene? No.

What we all have to work towards is changing mindsets and traditions that turn seemingly normal people into monsters,”

she concludes.


This article is part of   U.N. Women’s Empowering Women — Empowering Humanity: Picture It! 
campaign in the lead-up to Beijing+20. (© Women's Feature Service)

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