A study of autopsies conducted by a civic body-run hospital in Mumbai has found that at least 21.5% of the unnatural deaths of women registered with its forensic department were cases of suspected gender-based violence.

Not all these cases were investigated as crimes as the police registered some of them as suicides or accidental deaths. Based on the report, Maharashtra Women and Child Development Minister Mangal Prabhat Lodha has directed a committee to frame recommendations to prevent gender-based violence and a system to record such cases.

Between May 2017 and April 2022, the Seth GS Medical College and King Edward Memorial Hospital in Mumbai conducted 6,190 autopsies. Of the 1,467 female dead bodies that underwent autopsy, 840 were cases of unnatural deaths, the study found. Of these, in 181, or 21.5% cases, researchers found evidence of gender-based violence. About 75% of these women were in the age group of 15-44.

The finding was based on forensic analysis, nature and pattern of injuries, statement of victims before death, and statement of their relatives.

Of the 181 deaths which the researchers have linked to gender-based violence, 86 (47%) were registered as suicides, 85 (47%) as accidental deaths and only 10 (6%) were registered as homicide cases involving intimate friend, husband or relative.

“We believe the homicide numbers would be higher and several deaths that were registered as suicide or accidental were in fact murders or cases of abetment to suicide,” said Harish Pathak, the head of forensic department at the King Edward Memorial Hospital.

The majority of the 181 deaths – 105, or 58% – were caused due to burns, followed by death by hanging, which constituted 20% of the cases. Poisoning or drug overdose caused 16% of the deaths, the study found.

Pathak said apart from homicide, in two categories – fire burns and hanging – gender-based violence was clearly notable.

“In the medical records and patient case history, we found inconsistencies in statements of relatives and victims,” he said. “For example, there were cases of fire where the family said the woman’s sari caught fire, but her hair smelled of kerosene. There were cases where the family said the woman ingested Lizol (surface disinfectant) accidentally. Lizol smells and is easily differentiable from water. How can a person mistake it for water?” Pathak said.

He added that in certain cases the family brought the woman in the middle of the night and reported that the woman caught fire while cooking. “Such statements do not link with circumstantial evidence,” he said.

Vinita Puri, the head of plastic surgery department of the hospital, said that if a sari catches fire, it was not possible for a woman to sustain over 50% burns if someone had put off the fire or the woman could remove her sari.

“In the deaths we researched, women had more than 90% burns,” she said. “The pattern of burns suggested it started from the face. These are tell-tale signs that it was not accidental. Either it is self-immolation or someone else tried to set her on fire.”

Puri added that women who face violence are often under pressure from their families and open up later to nursing staff or doctors.

“In such cases, we inform the police,” she said. However, Pathak said that the researchers found that police did not dig deep and preferred to shut the cases hastily if their families alleged suicide.

The research could contextualise the reasons for death in at least 114 of the 181 cases where some patient history could be recorded. About 66.5% of these women were facing marital problems, another 32% had family problems and 15% of the cases involved extramarital affairs.

As far as the method of killing is concerned, in 38% of the cases, the research found instances of drug overdose or some chemical substance being given to the women. In 35% cases, death was caused by fire, while 24% deaths involved use of bodily force like smothering. In 2% of the cases, a weapon had been used, the research found.

“In most cases, we found evidence that suggested husbands or partners were responsible for violence, and in 40% cases family members were involved,” Pathak said.

Shraddha Joshi, member secretary of Maharashtra State Women Commission, who was present at the unveiling of the report, said on Monday that more volunteers were needed to identify cases of violence and psychologists to offer counseling to the women.

“This report indicates that a lot of domestic violence is not even reported to police,” Joshi said.

Currently, the Mumbai civic body is running 11 crisis centres for women called “Dilaasa” to provide them psychological and legal aid. “But we do face the issue of providing them temporary shelter. There are constraints in accessing legal aid,” said Mangala Gomare, executive health officer at the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.