Burnt, but not Broken.

Never in her dreams did 28-year-old Astha Jha* imagine that the man she loved and dreamed of spending a blissful life with, would set her on fire. Smart, vivacious and a good team leader in her school days and brought up in an urban area, Astha was married to a man who was affluent. Her family members were far reluctant in accepting the new relation, but she decided to give her hands to the love that was waiting her on the other end of the tunnel. Everything was normal in the beginning, until one day when she came to know that her husband was into drugs. 

Astha still recalls that day when she found packet of drugs in the pocket of her husband’s pants. Her anger knew no bounds, especially when she realized that her husband had bought the drugs by selling one of her gold necklaces. Grief, anger, sorrow and numerous questions in mind, Astha threw the packets out.

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When her husband came back home, he acted violently. In a fit of rage, he thrashed Astha, who at that time was six months pregnant. She fell on a sofa nearby, and that resulted in a miscarriage. Her husband dragged her to the kitchen and poured kerosene on her body, dousing it completely. He set fire to her, and later took her to a hospital as if to show that it was an accident. Nearly 50 percent of her body was destroyed by the fire.

With time, she did manage to recover – though the damage in her heart did not heal. Astha silently buried her woes. She decided not to say a word about the incident. As years passed by she gradually lost contact with her family members because she did not want anybody to know about her pain. She stepped back and decided not to lodge a complaint against her husband, instead silently cursing her fate for having brought her to face such a situation.

Astha’s story is not just one isolated tale – it is, but a drop in a huge ocean of several painful stories. The prevailing “culture of silence” is what makes many women and girls reluctant to speak out;  this is an attitude that they are taught to imbibe and embrace right from childhood. Many women are reluctant to share their problems as they are taught not to speak out against their husbands, and at any rate, even if they do speak out, who listens to them? A “good wife” is supposed to keep her domestic issues behind closed doors. Anything besides that is a flagrant violation of what her role as a wife entails, and brings disrepute to her. Today, Astha does not want to speak about the trauma that she faced because she does not have faith in justice. Coupled with that are fears of isolation and stigma – two things that often scare her, especially when it comes to the treatment her society would mete out to her.

The unwillingness to speak out against violence will bring no happiness. Instead, it only helps perpetrators walk scot free, and gives them added brazenness to keep at crime. Violence against women, perpetrated by men, is no depiction of masculinity or superiority of the male sex – but rather, is a calculated, brutal and dreadful crime that is bereft of humanity. Astha’s is just one story. There are many other women who have been burnt alive because they dared to speak out against the torture they faced at their husband’s hands. Sadly, though, the perpetrators involved in such incidents go unpunished because of the growing impunity that the culture of silence festers and the continued existence of feeble to useless laws that “govern” such crimes. Be it in the limited access to medical or psychological assistance, or in the absolute lack of respect for women in the undercurrents prevailing in society, women in such situations find themselves with precious little to help them out.

What are burn injuries?
Burns are injuries to the skin or other organic tissue primarily caused by heat or due to radiation, friction or contact with chemicals of a corrosive nature. Burns are categorized by first, second and third degrees. First degree burns are mildest, characterized by redness and swelling. Second degree burns are deeper with blistering on the skin and in third degree burns, the damage is deeper involving all layers of skin because it reaches the nerves and blood vessels.

Burn Injuries and Women
Burns are serious problems for women across the world. According to World Health Organization, an estimated 1,955,000 deaths occur each year from fire related incidents and it rank among the 15 leading cause of death among children, youth and young adults, aged anywhere between 5 and 29 years. South East Asia alone accounts for just over one-half of the total number of fire-related deaths worldwide and women in this region have the highest fire related burn mortally rates globally. Every year, approximately 120 patients are admitted in the Bir Burn Unit (BBU) of Bir Hospital, the oldest hospital in Nepal where 70 percent of the victims are women.

Fighting fire
Burn injuries are dangerous acts of violence against women. One hears of everything from bride-burning on dowry related grounds, to immolation by abusive husbands who inflict physical violence without care. Many times, the victims die. And in the few instances that they survive, life becomes a challenge: a challenge that some rise above, no doubt, but a challenge that they can certainly do without. Right from reworking legislation to govern burn injuries and infliction of violence using pyric and corrosive substances, to reordering crisis response to victims of violence in need of medical and psychiatric assistance – there needs to be a paradigm shift in social attitudes.

Written by Pragya Lamsal with inputs from Burn Survivors, Nepal.
Pragya can be contacted at lamsalpragya@gmail.com or pragyalamsal@yahoo.com


*Name Changed
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