Photo essay

Photo essay: For women burns survivors in India, life can be a trial by fire

Of the 1.4 lakh deaths caused by burn injuries in India every year, 90,000 are women.

“I had set myself ablaze. I was wearing a synthetic sari; as it caught fire, the fabric melted and seared my skin underneath. I ran helter-skelter, howling in pain and before I knew I was unconscious.”

With these words, Radha described the fated moment that altered her life irreversibly. She had tried to burn herself alive with kerosene, in a fit of rage, to escape the vicious circle of physical and mental abuse her alcoholic husband had subjected her to.

Radha is just one of the lakhs of women who suffer burn injuries in India every year. In Chennai, at the Kilpauk Medical College’s burns ward alone, close to 3,000 patients were admitted in 2016. Ninety per cent of the burn survivors have resorted to self-immolation as a result of domestic violence, though most suicidal or homicidal burns in women are reported as kitchen accidents resulting from gas burst, leakage or defective burners.

The long road to recovery

Burn injuries can impair skin integrity, cause hypertrophic scarring and make one susceptible to sepsis and other neurobiological changes that can also affect functionally important body parts. The subsequent rehabilitation efforts including dressing, medication, physiotherapy, surgical debridement (removal of damaged tissue) and the wound healing processes are excruciating.

As the physical wounds begin to heal, the psychological ones become more pronounced.

“When I came here, I was devastated,” said Asma, a survivor staying at the International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care’s Recovery & Healing Centre in Chennai. “The pain of wearing these pressure garments all day apart, I kept worrying about my three-year-old daughter who was very scared of my scars and refused to speak to me. I even wondered if I could just die painlessly. But after months of treatment and counselling, I’m at peace with myself now.” The Chennai centre has helped over 2,000 female burn survivors, facilitating rehabilitation and reintegration by extending psychosocial support services that help them cope with the multitude of challenges, whether medical, psychosocial or economic.

Asma, like most burn survivors, was under a lot of pressure to report her suicide attempt as an accident. She did not have a job or parental support, which meant that she had to go back to living with her husband post-treatment. She also could not risk being separated from her children. In fact, most survivors have to go back to living in the same milieu they were in before the incident, to perform the gendered nurturing roles assigned to them, thus making them vulnerable to abuse once again.

Urgent call for attention

The stigma around scars and disfigurement, blaming and shaming by relatives, fear of ridicule and lack of legal guidance negatively influences the agency of women burn survivors. They also have to deal with an ecosystem that is impassive and unresponsive, at times even adding to the perpetuation of violence beyond the initial act.

While Kilpauk Medical College in Chennai has an exclusive burns block, most hospitals across India have very little infrastructural support. A research study titled Busting the Kitchen Accident Myth: Case of burn injuries in India says there are 70 lakh burn injuries in India annually, out of which 7 lakh require hospital admission and 1.4 lakh are fatal. Another article says that of the 1.4 lakh deaths, 90,000 of those affected are women.

Despite the huge numbers, burns injuries are still underrepresented in comparison to acid attacks, an equally horrific act of violence against women. While acid attack survivors are now included in the Persons with Disabilities Bill and are eligible for affirmative action and benefits, burn survivors are not.

The PwD Act, 2016, which replaced the PwD Act of 1995, defines a “person with disability” as “a person with long term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairment which, in interaction with barriers, hinders his full and effective participation in society equally with others”. It also mentions that “disability is an evolving and dynamic concept”. Given this definition and the nature of burn injuries in India, burn injuries must qualify to be included under the act.

While acid attacks are included as a non-bailable offence under sections 326A and 326B of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013, the same is not true for kerosene or alcohol burns. Section 357B provides compensation for survivors of acid violence, but not burn victims. Similarly, under the Nirbhaya fund, compensation is given to victims of acid attacks once an FIR is filed, but no such provision exists for fire burn victims.

Given the women’s reluctance to describe burns as non-accidental, very few cases even make it to court. Reliance on the testimony of the survivor, lack of forensic evidence and limited circumstantial evidence also mean that very few cases lead to conviction.

Prasanna Gethu, co-founder of PCVC, said: “Understanding a burn survivor calls for an objective analysis of their lives before, during and after the surgery. However, most cases are filed as accidents and there is no historical data on burn violence, especially domestic violence, in the national burn registry. Such a record is a must so that one can do effectively investigate and prosecute perpetrators of the crime, thus bringing in justice for survivors.”

Very clearly, the gaps in infrastructural support and policies to manage trauma care need to be filled. There must be provision for the women to change their police statements when they are in an enabling environment, not just at the hospital, even before they have recovered from the trauma of the incident. There is a need for a national trauma policy, which will help strengthen the care given to patients who have suffered from these types of injuries.

Maintenance of a burn registry, inclusion in the PwD Act, education of women on their legal rights, awareness about skin donation, compensation for survivors are good places to start with. While the policy changes and macro-level interventions will empower the survivors post the injury, the key is to build a comprehensive, integrated support system for female burn survivors of domestic violence. Collaborative efforts from state and non-state stakeholders, including hospitals, healthcare institutions, police, social workers, law enforcement agencies, caregivers, counsellors is a must.

* Some names have been changed on request.

All images by Sindhuja Sarathy.

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.