“My child refused to come near me”: How Women Burn-Survivors in India Are Alienated from their Children

By Swetha D | 6 June 2017

In 2013, Anandi, then a 33-year-old woman, lived in Chennai with her husband and two children—an infant girl, and a seven-year-old boy. Anandi’s nine-year marriage had been tumultuous. Her husband was an alcoholic whose emotional and physical abuse had become a regular feature of her life. Her constant anxiety was exacerbated by the financial problems that had propelled their family into debt. “I could not step out of my house without creditors questioning me about the money my husband owed them,” she said. One evening that year, after 40 days of sobriety, Anandi’s husband came home drunk. An altercation ensued, during which he beat Anandi. She could not sleep that night. “I thought things were getting better. But that night I felt that he had not changed at all. I was very upset and his alcoholism kept coming back to me again and again,” she told me when I met her in November 2016.

It seemed from my conversation with Anandi that such incidents of abuse had pushed her towards thinking about drastic measures. On the morning that followed that particular evening, she took one. She seized her opportunity when her husband left the house, telling her that he would be back soon. “I don’t know what came over me,” Anandi said. “But when I saw the can of kerosene, I picked it up, poured it on myself and lit a match.”

Anandi’s mother-in-law had taken her infant away earlier, but her older child witnessed the incident. Nearly 44 percent of Anandi’s body was burnt. Her mother-in-law took her to a hospital immediately. She instructed Anandi to tell the authorities that the burns were a result of a stove that had burst; otherwise, she claimed, the hospital would not admit Anandi.

Anandi’s case is not an aberration. She is one among many Indian women whose burn-related injuries—and the patterns that these incidents reveal—have been long ignored. Such injuries, most often a result of the marital circumstances that are imposed on these women, are shrouded in secrecy because of the stigma that surrounds domestic abuse in India. “Although officially, the women say that these are accidents, it is really due to violence,” Regina Menezes told me. Menezes is the director of the Sakhya Women’s Guidance Cell in Mumbai. The cell works in the Thane Civil Hospital, and two social workers from the organisation regularly interact with patients in the burn ward. “The women face different kinds of violence in their marital homes, and they are faced with an atmosphere where the woman is pushed to attempt suicide by burning herself,” she said.

Burns among Indian women are often, either an act of violence by their partner, or a case of self-inflicted injuries that are preceded by a long history of domestic violence. Officially, however, most of these cases are recorded as kitchen accidents. In July 2016, Padma Bhate-Deosthali, who works with the Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes, a public-health research organisation, published a paper titled, “Busting the kitchen accident myth: Case of burn injuries in India.” Deosthali analysed 22 burn cases in three hospitals across Mumbai, of which 15 had been recorded as accidents in the kitchen. However, as she discovered through her interviews with the survivors, only three among these cases could be categorised as accidents with certainty. Of the 19 that remained, she noted, 13 were suicide attempts; two, homicidal attacks; and four, cases in which the survivors admitted to a history of domestic abuse, even though they continued to claim that the injuries were a result of an accident.

This mischaracterisation is not an aberration either. In November 2016, I met a 20-year-old woman from Chennai whose husband had burned her. She told me, “If I had told the truth that my husband had burned me, then his rage towards me would only increase.” She explained that she did not think that she “had any other option” but to go back to her husband from the hospital. “If I accused him then he would not have taken me back,” she continued. “And with the burns having left its scars, my thought process was all about who would support me or give me a job once I left the hospital.” Bhate-Deosthali told me, “There emerges a clear gap between what is reported and the facts. Most cases remain ‘accidents’ because women succumb to family pressure and their concern for [their] children prevents them from speaking out against the abuse faced by them.”

Many women do not survive such incidents. The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, a population-health research centre that is a part of the University of Washington, conducted an analysis of the global disease data from 2015. According to their analysis, Indian women who are between 15 and 50 years old are more prone to fire-related deaths than the women of any other country. In October 2016, the Society for Community Health Awareness Research and Action, a community health-resource centre in Karnataka, and Vimochana, a forum for women’s rights in Bengaluru, published a report in which they performed a gender-based analysis of the burn injuries that were reported in the city. The report noted that just in the year 2012, 830 women were admitted in the burns ward of Victoria Hospital—which has the largest burns ward in Bengaluru—while the number of men who were admitted was 591. It went on to state that the burns that were sustained by the women were more severe than those that the male patients reported. In the same year, the mortality rate of the women who were admitted to the hospital, at 69 percent, was also significantly higher than the mortality rate of the men who were admitted there—26 percent.

It is estimated that several thousand women in India die because of injuries that are sustained on account of burns every year. In a paper titled “Gendered pattern of burn injuries in India” that was published in the Reproductive Health Matters, an international journal on sexual and reproductive rights, Bhate-Deosthali and Lakshmi Lingam, another public health professional, noted that in 2014 alone, 91,000 women had died from burn-related injuries in India. The paper, which reviews existing literature on such injuries in India, argued that there is a need to address both the frequency of burn-related injuries among women and the inability of the health system to recognise the violence that underscores such incidents.

For the burn survivors, the situation is fraught with tumult. One of the challenges for several women burn-survivors is regaining the acceptance and trust of their children. The child’s trauma, the woman’s altered appearance because of the injuries and often, the conflict between the woman and her marital family are some of the factors that contribute to creating a distance between the woman and her children. Although the women I met had made most of their decisions with their children in mind, rebuilding these relationships proved to be an uphill task for them.

In Anandi’s case, although her seven-year-old son continued to be able to identify her, her daughter could not recognise her because of the scars that the injury had left on her face. “She knew my voice, but she did not know me by face. She would not even let me touch her,” said Anandi. “She started being more attached to my sister and started calling her amma”—mother. On one occasion, Anandi said, she went to a mall with her sister and daughter. While she was attending to the bill for their shopping,  Anandi’s sister left the two alone briefly. Since Anandi’s child was still attached to her aunt, she started wailing and attracted the attention of the guards. “They surrounded me and started questioning me about who the child was. I was totally helpless, and my sister rushed back to explain the situation,” Anandi told me.

It takes a long time for survivors to completely recover from their burn injuries. Since these wounds are rarely accidental, the severity of the burns that women face is often fairly high. As a result, when a survivor is first admitted to the hospital, the entire focus is on keeping her alive. This is followed by wound care, which then leads to extensive physiotherapy. The process may take anywhere between six months to a year. During this time, there are several factors that could contribute to the children’s dissonant response to their mothers. One among them is the their fear of the scars that burn survivors often develop, usually within the first few weeks of the burns.

Parimala, a 37-year-old woman from Chennai, is a survivor of self-inflicted burns. In 2013, Parimala, who was then a housewife, was growing increasingly frustrated with the severe abuse and financial difficulties she was facing in her marital home. One day, as a last resort, she decided to threaten her husband by burning herself. Parimala told me, “I just wanted to threaten him. I did not know that kerosene burn would lead to scars and a long road to recovery. I just thought it would cause a small wound that would heal in a couple of days.” Her daughter was three years old when the incident took place. “After the injury, my child refused to come near me,” Parimala said.

It is not just the scars that intimidate the children. As a part of the recovery process, those who survive burn injuries often have to wear pressure garments that cover their wounds. These garments, made of strong Lycra, may obscure parts of their face, chest and hands. Consequently, the woman’s changed appearance tends to scare the child. Often, survivors have to wear pressure garments for a period of two–three years to regain movement in their joints.

I met a 31-year-old survivor from Chennai, who, forced by the constant domestic abuse she was subjected to, had burnt herself in 2016. She currently wears pressure garments for 23 hours a day, and told me that her youngest child—a one-and-a-half-year-old girl—refused to come close to her. The 31-year-old woman said, “She stays with her father only. However, my older children did not react the same way. They accepted me faster.”

As Prasanna Gettu, the co-founder of the International Foundation of Crime Prevention and Victim Care, a Chennai-based non-profit organisation that has been working towards providing holistic support for women burn-survivors since 2003, told me, sometimes, the child’s emotional response towards the mother is rooted in the incident itself. (Disclosure: I worked with PCVC for a six-month research and advocacy project—through which it tried to bring national-level attention to the lack of holistic support for women burn-survivors—and continue to work with them on a voluntary basis.) According to Gettu, “When children see their mother setting herself on fire, they get angry.” “This anger, along with the negative messages of the mother they hear from family convinces them that their mother is at fault. Sometimes, they decide to completely disconnect from the mother due to this anger,” she added. Such a situation may be further complicated by the abusive nature of the relationship that a burn survivor shares with her partner and his family.

Swetha Shankar, the psychosocial lead at PCVC, told me that in several cases, the marital family of the woman had told her children that she was dead. “A large part of the relationship between the woman and her marital family is in conflict prior to the incident itself. The burn becomes a convenient excuse for many families to cut their relationship off with the woman completely by declaring she is dead to the children,” said Shankar. Menezes concurred. She said, “The husband and his family do not want the woman in first place. If she survives the burns, which has also affected her physical appearance, they are completely not ready to take her.” In these cases, the children cope with the loss by becoming attached to someone else in the family. Shankar told me, “Sometimes, they also grow attached to the father, who is the batterer in first place. So, they harbour a lot of anger towards the mother.”

But often, the relationship between a mother and a child in such a situation is plagued by issues that go beyond the initial anger, confusion and fear. Shankar told me, “Usually mothers are the primary caregivers for the child. But, right after the burns, they are in no condition to be the caregivers. Then, the children face a sudden sense of abandonment.”

Sivagami, a 39-year-old woman from Sriperumbudur, was in a highly abusive marriage with a man who was addicted to alcohol. In 2015, she set herself on fire to threaten him. She has three children, and her youngest child—a boy who is very attached to her—was ten years old when the incident took place. She broke down as she described to me the manner in which she felt that her son had been neglected for 13 months while she was recovering. She said, “My absence affected him a lot. He stopped going to school. There was nobody who could watch out for him. I was under treatment for so long that I was in no position to pay any attention.”

Shankar said that a large part of the problem that women burn-survivors have to contend with is also “the fundamental access to the children.” Bhate-Deosthali, for instance, recounted being told by an activist about a case in which a burn survivor was not allowed to meet her son under the pretext that her scars would scare him.

Durga, a 26-year-old survivor of self-inflicted burns, who hails from a village near Villupuram, has been in the PCVC recovery centre for the last three years. In 2015, Durga left her husband and their home because she was unable to withstand the torrent of his consistent physical and emotional abuse. Soon after, her husband refused to let Durga meet their seven-year-old son. As she had left her son with her husband at the time that she left her house, the police refused to extend any support to her when she attempted to file a complaint and meet her child. They claimed that since she had voluntarily left her child behind, they were not in a position to intervene. When Shankar tried to mediate and negotiate with her husband, from whom Durga has since separated, he said, “If the son willingly comes to her, she can have him.” Shankar said that since the son has been away from Durga for a long time, he appeared to feel closer to his father and their family. However, Durga is determined to get her child back. PCVC has been attempting to put her in touch with a legal counsel who would be able to help her fight the case.

Tussles such as these only add to the issue of the diminishing trust between the mother and the child. PCVC attempts to counter this problem by encouraging survivors to bring their older children with them for family-counseling sessions. Shankar told me that when women are brought into the organisation’s rehabilation centre, “We insist to the families that children must be brought at regular intervals to meet their mother.” “We also provide educational support to the children to ensure that the access to the mother remains. Sometimes, we have to negotiate with the partner and sometimes, we have to take a legal recourse,” she said.

The organisation also ensures that it communicates with the burn survivor regularly so that it can enable this process. It uses clay and art therapy to convey to the child that although the mother has changed in appearance, she is the same person inside. Using a doll or clay model over a period of time, they introduce the idea that although the doll’s external characteristics change, their attachment to the toy does not. “We gradually introduce this concept to human beings as well, and try to connect the child with the mother,” said Gettu.

In some cases, other members of the family also help the children forge a connection with their mother once again. Parimala told me that in the initial stages of her recovery, her nieces and nephews “kept trying to familiarise me with my daughter, by making her hold my fingers.” Gettu said that it is important to tell the child the truth. “Even if they don’t understand now, they will be able to understand later. Hiding the truth leads them to create their own answers.”

Some of the survivors I spoke to have been able to navigate this journey successfully. Anandi told me that she now has a full-time job as a wound-care specialist at PCVC and is “very happy being a working, single parent taking care of my child.” She said, “Currently at the recovery centre, there are three more survivors who are facing the problem that their children are scared of them. When I share my story with them, it gives them hope. They are able to cope.”

Sivagami said that her relationship with her son is now as good as it was before the incident in which she burnt herself. According to Parimala, her daughter has accepted her “100 percent.” There was one concern that continued to nag her. “I am still scared of the day when she grows older and her friends might ask her about her mother’s scars, which might influence her. That thought continues to worry me,” Parimala told me.

Swetha D writes & communicates about issues of gender and environment.
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