Parimala is a burn survivor. She has an undergraduate degree and before the incident happened, she had a full-time job that fetched her a monthly salary that she was happy with.
However, after recovery from burns, she went back to the same employer, who instead offered her menial jobs with far lesser pay. The only difference was that now, she had visible scars on her face.
Economic empowerment plays a significant role in making sure survivors of domestic violence have the means to move away from the violence. Many survivors stay with the abuser because they do not have any means of supporting themselves or their children if they leave the household. Burn survivors of domestic violence face double the difficulty in getting away from the abuser since their barriers include the stigma surrounding the scars in the aftermath of the burns.
Ambika is another burn survivor had an experience similar to that of Parimala’s. “I went back to the job I was at before burns, but they were hesitant to give me work. They would keep asking me to come back at later, did so 5-6 times. Eventually I got the message that they did not want me at there,” she says.
Women victims of burns are most often survivors of domestic violence. These could be partner-inflicted burns, or self-inflicted burns as a result of a long history of domestic abuse. Every month, at the women’s burn ward in Kilpauk Medical College Hospital, Chennai, 100-150 women get admitted. Most of them have a background of domestic abuse.
The stigma that burn survivors face is so high that some survivors have also said that they cannot even think of selling flowers on the streets, since people consider them bad omen.
Skill Development Trainings for Burn Survivors
Often, skill development trainings offer good openings for survivors, since a lot of them come with a job placement guarantee. Jayanti is a welfare officer at International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC), an organization that has been running a project to support the rehabilitation of women burn survivors for more than a decade now. She says that skill development training is an avenue that PCVC has often explored since there are several pre-existing programmes exclusively built for women. The programmes offer courses in several areas such as nursing assistance, vision care, basic computer training, accounting and cooking/baking.
Ambika At Work at KMC Hospital
Many survivors have found the courses interesting and some of them have also found jobs at the end of it. Jayanti gives the example of Vinodini, a survivor, who took up a three-month basic IT course and is currently placed at a job that she enjoys.
However, the courses also have their downsides. Public perception of burn survivors plays a large role in defining the kind of training they have access to or the kind of job they eventually get. Jayanti recounts an incident at a skill development centre where they refused to let a survivor take up the optometrists’ course since an optometrist’s job entails customer interaction. And placing someone with visible scars would be difficult.
Ambika also shares a similar experience. When she was discussing with her family about job opportunities, they discouraged her from considering options such as a beauty salon professional, “We thought that people might not be comfortable with getting any service from me since they come to a salon to dress themselves up.”
Instead, Ambika found quilling. With tutorials on television and YouTube, she learned to make jewellery by quilling and started selling them in markets independently. Although this went well for a while, it did not fetch her a steady income after 6 months.
While a few of these vocational trainings come with a monthly stipend, most of them are without any remuneration. Parimala’s concerns were on those lines, when it was suggested that she take up a three-month skill development course. “I wanted a job that would start paying me immediately because I had to support myself and my daughter. So, a course for 3 months with no salary did not make sense to me,” she says.
PCVC team with survivors at the Winner's Bakery Training Centre
Eventually, she took up a training programme at Winner’s Bakery, where she was paid a monthly salary to undergo a six-month training in various departments of the baking. Currently, she works at Writer’s Café, a café exclusively run by burn survivors.
Writer’s Café - A Welcome Initiative
Writer’s Café is a pilot project launched by restaurateur Mahadevan in association with Higginbothams to support women burn survivors. Exclusively run by burn survivors, profits also go towards rehabilitating other survivors. The plan is to open similar cafes in order to offer these spaces as permanent livelihood options for survivors.
Writer’s Café is reminiscent of the Sheroes Café run by acid attack survivors in Agra and Lucknow. The café was solely started as a way to remove the stigma around acid attack survivors and also as a means of a livelihood for them. Sheroes Café played a significant role in keeping the attention on acid attacks as a form of violence against women.
Apart from playing a large role in spreading awareness, and creating livelihood options, exclusive projects like this offer a space for camaraderie and continued healing for survivors.
Komala, one of the employees at Writer’s Café says, “When I went for the first day of training to Writer’s Café, I was very conscious of my appearance. I covered myself completely so that my scars were not visible. However, when I went there and found other survivors, I felt like I need not cover my scars. Others were also like me.”
But, most of all, the café has given survivors a chance at leading a regular life of self-respect and self-reliance. Parimala shares about how her relatives, who would not even pay attention to her existence earlier, have now turned around. “Now, my relatives specifically invite me to join them at social gatherings. But my biggest satisfaction comes from the fact that I wanted to do well to be able to support my daughter, and I now I have a job just for her sake. We will run this café well!”
While, some find healing in their interaction with other rehabilitated survivors, others have found healing by helping other victims become survivors.
Helping Other Burn Victims
After the problems she faced in establishing her jewellery making business, Ambika found her way back to PCVC, and joined as a welfare officer. Currently, she works at the women’s burns ward assisting other victims and counseling them through their stay at the hospital. Ambika is very happy with her job. She says, “My entire lifestyle changed after I started this job. Earlier, I felt like I was in a cage. Now, I feel like I am flying.” Additionally, she is also a quilling instructor to other survivors at the PCVC rehab for burn survivors.
Anandi, yet another survivor also joined PCVC as a social worker. She talks about how victims respond better to her at home visits since they are able to visibly see the results if they are patient and follow procedures. But, most of all, she is extremely happy that she can support her children. “When I get my salary, I can buy things for my children. That makes me extremely happy.”
Getting Mainstream Jobs
While all of these options offer certain avenues of work, they are still limited. Jayanti still thinks that Writer’s Café is just a lucky break. Often, the team has struggled to find means of livelihood for burn survivors. And a big factor that plays in everyone’s mind is that survivors are forced into the few avenues that are open to them. These limited options do not necessarily consider people’s interest, educational background or their capability. They get boxed in and are forced to choose from just 2 or 3 options.
Prasanna Gettu, founder of PCVC, says that it is important to offer them options because we should stop looking at a job just as a means of livelihood. While, initially it is a matter of money to for self-sufficiency, it is also a means of boosting their self-esteem. She says, “Some of the survivors had never thought about whether they wanted to do something with their lives. At the organization, we try to focus on jobs as means of personal growth and not just as a way of earning money. This is why some of the employees at the café are extremely happy because we have managed to connect them to something that they love to do.”
However, having more work options means that mainstream work should be open to burn survivors. But, the stigma against them plays a large role in limiting the avenues they can chose from. Prasanna talks about the various calls that PCVC gets where people ‘offer’ to take burn survivors in as domestic helps or as caretakers.
She says, “We once received a call from someone who said that they would like to hire a burn survivor for the job of a caretaker for their mother. But they were insistent that they would only hire somebody without any visible scars on the face. Basically, people should stop believing that they can offer someone the job of domestic help and feel like they have contributed something big to the society.”
Recently, ‘Make Love Not Scars’ tried to raise awareness in that direction with a video that was very well received on social media. Fitting into regular jobs also contributes to removing the stigma that burn survivors have to face in their everyday lives.
Yashoda, another burn survivor, has been working for an organization as an admin assistant for the last three-and-a-half years. She is also partly disabled (after burns) and her workplace has been very supportive of her. Gradually, from a back-office role, she also moved to working in front desk roles. She says, “I have a large group of friends at work and though initially my colleagues did not know how to receive me, we built a relationship over time. I absolutely enjoy my time at work.”
Main image: BRS Sreenag