Every day, a Google search on the term ‘kerosene burns’ throws up news items about women having lost their lives to burns. In most of these articles, there is speculation about the can of kerosene accidentally falling on the woman and catching fire.
Violence against women in the form of kerosene burns is very specific problem. Unlike acid attacks, which largely occur in public spheres as a form of street sexual harassment, burns by way of kerosene, alcohol or petrol more often happens in domestic spaces. This specific manifestation of violence against women occurs as a result of a long period of abuse, harassment and violence within households mostly by the husband/ partner and/or their families.
Sometimes, the partner cold-heartedly pours kerosene and sets his wife ablaze, and in other cases an altercation leads to the threat of self-harm, which eventually leads to the woman immolating herself.
According to the national burns registry, 91,000 women die on an average annually due to ‘kitchen accidents.’ However, as broached in the paper that mentioned this data, these may not necessarily be accidents.
Are These Really Accidents?
While, on the face of it, the kerosene burn seems like one incident, often there is a history of domestic abuse & violence that is often ignored. According to a study titled Busting the Kitchen Accident Myth: Case of burn injures in India, by public health official Padma Bhate Deosthali, of 22 cases of burn injuries in women (that they studied), 15 were reported as accidents to the police. However, when counsellor records were examined only 3 of these were really accidents. Others were cases of burn injuries inflicted by partner, self-inflicted burns or cases of accidental burns with a history of domestic violence.
The study reiterates what we have seen in several cases that we handled. In many cases, while giving their official statements, women are in a state of physical and psychological trauma. They need time to settle down and a conducive environment to ground themselves to reality. They need to move to a stable frame of mind before being able to give a truthful account of the incident. This is why counsellor records are very different and far more detailed when compared to the official statement.
Additionally, while domestic violence cuts across socio-economic backgrounds, this specific manifestation of domestic violence is largely found in impoverished households. The lack of financial and social support creates a lot of insecurities and survivors have constant fear of losing the support system in the form of the husband or marital homes. This also adds to them choosing to not reveal the actual incident.
Many times, the history of violence goes all the way back to their natal homes as well. Many survivors that we have interacted with were raised in households of restriction, discrimination & violence. Violence is normalized in their lives, and the thought that one could succumb to it is etched since early days.
So, once they get married and face abusive partners, this violence constantly escalates until it leads to self-infliction or infliction of burns by husband or in-laws.
Basically, an accident is many times a lie that is more convenient for the society to hear or believe in.
Gendered Impact of Burns
Additionally, the impact of burn injuries – accident or not – should be viewed via a gendered lens. Similar to the cases of HIV & disabilities, the vulnerabilities of a woman burn survivor are different from that of a man.
In the aftermath of the burns, the physical appearance of the woman has severely been impacted. Her physical capability of doing chores is also reduced. Often this leads to her not being able to fulfill roles which society has carved out for her – as a wife, mother or sexual partner. She is unable to fulfill her job as the caregiver to the family or as a mother to her children. Moreover, her health has now put an additional financial burden on the family. So, in effect, her gender & priority to her health is denied and she becomes more vulnerable to domestic and sexual violence at this point.
We notice that many times, the husband/partner stays by her side only until the official statement is recorded. He leaves once they know he knows he is off the hook. At this point, the woman is very insecure about losing her only support system (of marriage) because she believes that she is no longer worth anything since her body has changed. She is worried that her husband might find other women to replace her.
Additionally, social norms around female sexuality encourage women to remain passive in matters of sexuality. So, the violence takes a different form altogether and the woman forms a bond with her husband where she willfully participates in the abuse.
The healing process is often supported by the individual’s will to live and rebuild her life. But, social conditioning & the gendered impact is a big barrier in survivors focusing on and valuing themselves.
Can We Find Solutions?
Firstly, it is most important to expand the definition of data related to burns. We need a system where probable reasons for burn injuries are recorded. This will involve systemic change where the survivor is given the time and sufficient support to speak up about the history of violence that she has faced. This will prevent burn injuries from falling under the ‘all accident’ classification.
Furthermore, hospitals should be able to provide domestic violence-informed care. Hospitals often indulge in victim-blaming themselves because of lack of understanding of domestic violence. They are ill equipped at an institutional level to support the emotional healing on the survivor.
Burn victims need more than just medical care. Image: PCVC
Unless healthcare providers have the knowledge to recognize domestic violence and its dynamics, they will not be able to empathise with the survivor’s situation as a patient with the double trauma of burns & domestic violence.
But, this will begin to happen only when India acknowledges the reality of burns being a manifestation of violence against women. This issue is still conveniently hiding under the cover of incomplete data. It is now time to uncover the reality behind this.
Rashmi Singh is the Director, Programmes at PCVC (International Centre for Crime Prevention & Victim Care), an organization that works in the space of violence against women. They have a flagship project called Vidiyal that supports women burn survivors. Please check the Facebook page or Twitter handle for more information.