It has been close to 20 years since that fateful day for Pushpa. In 1997, Pushpa was a 15-year old who had just cleared Class 10 and was residing at Ghatkesar, on the outskirts of Hyderabad.
While cooking at home, a kerosene-leak led to a gas-stove burst, leaving her scarred and burnt for life. The 34-year old has till date, undergone 14 surgeries over the past 19 years.
But Pushpa refuses to hide her face. Interacting with the media in Hyderabad on Wednesday during a round table meeting on challenges faced by burn victims, Pushpa was vocal about her ongoing struggles to lead a normal life.
As a participant at the Telangana State Round-table for Women Burn Survivors, Pushpa spoke about how she has now taken to tailoring to ensure that she need not depend on anyone else for her day-to-day needs.
“I don't hide my face by covering it, unless the other person is uncomfortable. I wasn't always like this. After my father died five-six years ago, there was no one to take care of me. I was in hospital for long periods of time. I gathered courage to go for treatment all alone," she was quoted as saying.
"The mishap made my life hell, but I have learnt to live with it. Since the past few months, my brother has been harassing me, as he thinks I expect a share of my father’s property. It was an accident, but my brother is trying to make it seem like a suicide bid.
With lots of difficulty, I have started working as a tailor to survive. I do expect some ancestral property for my financial security, as I have to lead a single life and feed myself," she added.
While Pushpa is a survivor who exudes indomitable courage, she is not alone, when it comes to harassment. In a majority of burn cases in India, women especially are more often victims of gender violence, with no one to provide them physical or mental succour.
Burns due to acid, kerosene, gas or alcohol figure among the most horrific forms of violence against women in the country. Causing severe physical deformities and disfigurement, these often lead to complete or partial disability or impair vital parts/organs/functions in the body.
"Many women succumb because of inadequate, unresponsive support services….overwhelmed by more than just the physical injury. Even conservative estimates put female deaths due to fire at 91,000 a year in India," claim the organisers in a press release.
According to them, Telangana fares slightly better, when compared to others. It’s been almost a year since the state government opened Bharosa Centres -a one-stop Crisis Centre for women.
A Government Order (GO) too was issued to rehabilitate survivors of all gender-based violence -including burn survivors- under the Victim Compensation Fund.
Calling it a "progressive decision that would help these survivors," the organisers stated that it also needed to analyze how well the state was able to access funds from the National Programme for Prevention of Burn Injuries (NPPBI).
Despite such measures in place, the state still has a long way to go, as women-burn-survivors are at a disadvantage, in comparison with their male counterparts.
Legally speaking, a majority of the cases get registered as accidents in police records, while most are actually suicidal or homicidal in nature.
One main insight that emerged from the discussions was that most district and area hospitals were simply not equipped to handle burns. The victims lose the first six precious hours in transit all the way to Hyderabad.
Most private hospitals refuse to admit victims due to medico-legal implications as well as lack of requisite infrastructure.
Addressing the gathering, Dr Krishna, Ex-HOD -Plastic Surgery at Gandhi Hospital, said:"Our present policies don't consider burn victims as 'disabled people' and there is no continuous support after the treatment. Burn survivors need sustained support, as the family abandons them in most cases.
I have dealt with around 1100 burn victims in the past decade. Most cases go unregistered due to family pressure and other reasons. Most district and area hospitals are not equipped to handle burns.”
He also felt that there is an imperative need to have plastic surgeons posted at district hospitals as well. It was Dr Krishna who has given Pushpa a ‘second life’, as she herself acknowledges.
Speaking at the Round-table, Prasanna Gettu –CEO of Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC), a Chennai-based non-profit organisation- said, "These tragedies are not solely the result of a lack of access to effective treatment or financial resources. They occur due to discriminatory social norms and practices, which undermine gender equality and contribute to violence against women.”
A large part of society still believes that domestic violence is justiﬁed in certain circumstances, she opined.
In such a scenario, Gettu hoped for a streamlining of liaison between various government departments and the civil society, so as to ensure an effective response to this form of violence.
According to her, this was very much needed in order to be able “to build a holistic support system for women and children impacted by burns, and transform social norms to prevent violence against women and promote ‘zero tolerance’ throughout our communities.”
Andrew MacAllister, British Deputy High Commissioner was also present at the event.