Time for the society to introspect why girls who, being trained by their mothers, cooked well at natal homes but encounter accidental burns in the kitchens of marital homes.
The other day I happened to read a publication, “Gendered Pattern of Burn Injuries in India: A Neglected Health Issue”, Published in Reproductive Health Matters 2016, 24: 96-103 by Padma Bhate-Deosthali and Lakshmi Lingam. Reviewing “the existing literature on burn injuries in India” and tracing the “gaps in recognizing the gendered factors leading to a high number of women dying due to burns”, the authors stressed the “need to investigate the abnormally high number of accidental burns amongst young women aged 18-35.” As I finished its reading, ha! I was overawed by silence and glum. But first the facts: that annually—
- an estimated 7 million burn injuries are reported in India
- of which 700,000 cases require hospital admission,
- of which 140,000 are reported fatal;
- that 91,000 of these deaths are of women;
- that this death figure is higher than that for maternal mortality, and
- that “deaths due to burns are four times higher among women aged 18-35 years.
Reviewing the community studies from India, the authors opined that dowry-related violence is an important cause of bride burning or dowry deaths of women and such incidents are reported more from the low socioeconomic strata of the society. A study carried out by Vimochana about unnatural deaths in marriages reported from Bengaluru during 1997-99 revealed that 70% of these reported deaths of young brides were closed in police records as accidental deaths.
A similar analysis carried out by the Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT) in 2014 in a large tertiary hospital in Mumbai revealed that in 62% of 133 cases there is a difference about the cause of burns between the information posted in the medical records—‘accidental’, ‘no information’—and the records of counsellors that mentioned the cause as “suicidal, homicidal, and domestic violence”. According to the authors, the existing laws make investigation of such unnatural deaths of married women within seven years of marriage mandatory. Here, doctors play an important role in recording dying declarations. Their opinion about the cause of death also plays an important role. Yet, the medical profession, as the authors opined, treating the violence as private behaviour, unfortunately often found to limit themselves to treat the injuries leaving causes for burns unexamined except to observe once in a while: “it is unlikely for a person to suffer 60-80% burns if it is accidental”.
There is another side to this story of kitchen deaths: Indian mothers invariably train their daughters well in cooking, particularly those from the low socioeconomic strata from which the burn cases are reported high, hence it remains an enigma as to why girls who cooked safely in natal homes, face burn-related injuries and death at marital homes? This is a serious question and needs an honest introspection of all those engaged in the welfare of women, particularly, Women Welfare Departments of State and Central governments.
An honest enquiry of this question more likely to end up in desperation—there is something fishy behind these burn-deaths of 91,000 women per year. And yet much is still desired in our approach to this social malady and even towards management of burn injuries of these victims. Treatment of survivors of burn injures is a long and arduous process. They may even require reconstructive surgery, occupational therapy and rehabilitation plans. And the victims being female and mostly hailing from poorer sections, the economic consequences of such burns and their treatment are very high. This is a serious gap that is essentially to be filled by external assistance. This becomes all the more obvious in cases where the women were disowned by the in-laws and parents are not in a position to afford the expensive treatment.
All this cumulatively calls for social action. It is here that corporates can play a vital role: as a part of their CSR programs, they can launch such ‘awareness campaigns’ on the lines of the current ‘road-safety-campaign’ which make kitchens and cooking safe for every woman. The campaign shall also educate health workers about domestic violence and train them to identify signs and symptoms of likely violence in families so that they can facilitate early identification of abuse by the victims and importantly, encourage them to seek timely external help. These campaigns must also educate the family members about their role when such fire accidents occur: extinguishing the fire, pouring water over the victim, providing first aid, arranging for immediate medical care, etc.
Such social campaigning also ensures that the burn-accidents are rightly reported and justice is afforded to the victim so as to deter their free recurrences. Corporates may also help in establishing and maintaining skin banks at major hospitals for using in grafts for treating wounds. They could also encourage health workers to use banana leaves as an immediate dressing material against burns for it is reported that banana leaf dressing being non-adherent, protects wounds from trauma, and prevents them from becoming too dry. Corporates may also aid burn-victims with timely medical help, besides offering counselling to the survivors of burn-injuries to overcome psychological trauma and get rehabilitated.
It is only through such external interventions that the society can be sensitized about these unfortunates death of young women and also make the family and community accountable for safety in kitchens. Cumulatively, such awareness and social-consciousness alone shall pave the way for arresting this social malady effectively.