BENGALURU — “The stove exploded in the kitchen,” they say. “Scalding hot water fell on me by accident while I was making tea,” or “I didn’t realize that my clothes caught fire while I was cooking.” These are some of the common explanations from women admitted to the burns ward of Victoria Hospital in the high-tech capital of the Indian State of Karnataka. Sadly, these statements almost always act as a cover-up for the truth, which is both horrific and heartbreaking.
Zarina Khatoon was set on fire by her husband, although 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 said.
Shocking as it may sound, in India — regardless of region, class, community or age — married women are being burned alive on the flimsiest pretexts, from being thought unattractive or cooking unappetizing meals to bringing insufficient dowry into the marriage, expressing opinions freely, talking to a neighbour or giving birth to daughters: anything and everything can infuriate and incite the husband or the in-laws.
Bride burning, as this occurrence is called, accounts for the death of nearly one woman every hour in India — more than 8,000 women a year, says the National Crime Records Bureau, which reported that 8,233 women, many of them new brides, were killed in dowry-related deaths in 2012; in 2013, statistics indicate that 8,083 died this way. Unfortunately, because this crime takes place inside the home, it limits the scope of intervention by authorities, 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 happened the night her husband decided to get rid of her by setting her on fire. Sathya, an activist with Vimochana, a women’s rights organization in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) that has been assisting distressed girls and women and advocating for their rights for decades, said: “For Asha, who is now in her forties, it has been a long and difficult struggle to find her feet again. It was 10 years back that her husband set her on fire right in front of their daughter. Over the years, Asha has found the strength to forge on for the sake of the young girl.”
Asha struggled to survive for weeks. She has never regained her voice. Today, she communicates through her daughter, Jyoti. “The sprightly adolescent, who is currently pursuing her pre-university studies, often becomes the voice of her mother,” Sathya said. “She was very small when the episode occurred and watched her mother fighting for life.
“As Asha recovered with the help of extensive treatment and counseling, she gradually gained the courage and confidence to share her story through her daughter,” Sathya added. She has observed many women like Asha pull themselves together despite the 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.”
How will I sustain myself and my children? Who will pay for my treatment? Will anyone give a disfigured person a job? These are questions that often hold back the Ashas and Zarinas from standing up for themselves. “In a society like ours, which is obsessed with beauty and physical appearance, what chance do women like me have to gain respectable employment?” Zarina asks.
She is not wrong. Burn survivors have low self-esteem when they enter the job market, and most prospective employers are not comfortable with either their appearance or their circumstances, making it doubly difficult for them to find suitable work. For those who do secure a reasonable job, their long-term medical treatment gets in the way. Often they must take short or extended breaks, which employers may not allow.
A combination of justice and adequate rehabilitation can enable a survivor to regain control of her life and destiny. But neither avenue is easy to obtain, especially if the woman happens to be from a lower caste, a tribal or a minority community. Yashoda, founder of the Karnataka Dalit Mahila Vedike, a forum assisting survivors of caste and gender violence, has championed the cause of Dalit (formerly known as untouchable) women for years.
She recalls an incident where concerted action successfully sent a perpetrator to jail. “In 2009, when a Dalit woman had spurned the sexual advances of a man from the dominant [higher] caste, he retaliated by attacking her violently and setting her on fire,” Yashoda says. “After committing the crime, the man simply vanished. A few concerned passersby helped her and she was able to hold on for four days before she died, but the police had been able to take her statement about what happened.”
Yashoda’s survivors’ forum collaborated with other human-rights groups to investigate the incident and complaints were registered at the local police station, followed by large-scale protests. Not only was the man arrested — the case is still in court — but the state government also compensated the family of the victim and promised that the education of her minor children would be supported by the state.
Such a rally to ensure justice does not happen regularly. Donna Fernandes, a co-founder of Vimochana, which has advocated for a separate ward for female burns survivors in Victoria Hospital, said that much more needs to be done. She said it was “absolutely essential” that laws passed to deal with domestic violence, including the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005, must deal with women who have been set on fire by their husbands or in-laws. Such women must by law receive financial and other support for medical care, including physiological and psychological counseling, especially if they have sustained grievous burns.
It is the never-say-die attitude of survivors that really keeps them going. Sylvia, 33, a vegetable vendor in Bengaluru, has been to hell and back. “But I refuse to dwell in the past,” she said. “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.”
Women like Sylvia 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,” she said. “Does that mean we ban the sale of kerosene? No. What we all have to work towards is changing mind-sets and traditions that turn seemingly normal people into monsters.”
© Women’s Feature Service
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Pushpa Achanta is a freelance reporter and blogger based in Bangalore who writes about development and human-interest issues. She is the lead author of the book “The Right to Water and Sanitation for Whom,” published in July 2013 by the Indian Social Institute in Bangalore.