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Burn victims suffer in silence

KARACHI, Oct 21: Domestic violence is a phenomenon not new to any society. In its most extreme form victims are killed either by stabbing, strangulation, burning or other grisly methods. Particularly disturbing is the number of burn cases reported by women in Pakistan, which shows no sign of decreasing.

Data collected by the Madadgar Helpline for Children and Women states that 162 women were set on fire in Sindh in 2001, 75 in 2002, 123 in 2003, 168 in 2004, more than 100 each in 2005 and 2006, and 82 in 2007 from January to August. However, the overall data collected from Jan to Aug 2007 of women burn victims throughout Pakistan goes way above 1,779.

Though the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s report for 2006, published on its website, claims that 113 women in Punjab had been burnt that year, out of which only seven were unmarried, the report does not include the cases of women who are supposedly burnt because of their own “mistakes.”

The stove blew up or a match was lit while gas was leaking are some of the common explanations given for women burn victims. But many people argue that why is it mostly daughters-in-law or wives that get burnt and not any other members of the family?

Rukhsana (30) was tortured on the issue of dowry by her husband Pervaiz Ahmed, his first wife and his other family members three years ago. However the ordeal did not end there as they went on to douse her with kerosene and then set her on fire. A similar incident happened to 18-year-old Amina. She was burnt by her husband Asif and his family a year ago. Neither Amina nor Rukhsana managed to survive.

Social stigma

None of the accused were brought to trial despite the fact that FIRs were registered in both cases. None of the women had informed their families about any domestic discord between them and their in-laws. Since it is a common feature of society for women not to reveal their family problems to anyone, they end up suffering in silence for the rest of their lives or worse, are killed.

Surprisingly, almost all the 20 women patients admitted to the Civil Hospital Karachi’s Burns Centre said that either they had been burnt as a result of a cooking accident or that they were suffering from epilepsy and had fits while cooking. There was only one woman who said that a boy threw acid on her and her mother when she refused his advances.

“Epilepsy is an excuse,” said Executive Director of the Burns Ward, Dabir-ur-Rehman, “that most female patients burnt by family or husbands, find convenient.”

“I have come across a woman who was allegedly burnt while cooking and her husband also burnt his arms while reportedly trying to save her. But when I asked her in confidence on the promise of not disclosing the details to anyone, she told me that her husband had burnt her and held her shoulders, burning his arms in the process in order to assure that she burns to death,” he said.

The man got off the hook while the woman died in a few days’ time. Dabir-ur-Rehman disclosed that female patients do not admit the truth for the fear that if they do, they will not find justice nor will their family accept them.

Dr Wasif Ali, a psychiatrist, said that Pakistan does not have a very high ratio of epilepsy in females and the statements made by the majority of female patients in the burns ward seemed far removed from reality.

“The real picture can easily be found if the EEG of the patient is taken soon after they are admitted,” he said. “What happens is that the medico-legal officers take money from the abuser’s family and convince the patient’s relatives to opt for this easy way out as it is too much of a hassle if they tell the real story to the police, who are not going to help them in any way” he added.

Describing the history of violence and aggression, Dr Ali said that it is human instinct to use brutality in order to assert authority as it gives a sense of gratification.

Vicious circle

“Our society in particular is such that it regards females as paon ki jooti. They can be treated in whatever way and humiliated any time,” he pointed out. He shared the findings of a study carried out a few years ago that says 55 to 60 per cent of the men who batter their wives have seen domestic violence going on in their family during their childhood. He also told this reporter that one out of every four women, belonging to all socio-economic backgrounds, are subjected to domestic violence.

“Interestingly, you will hardly come across men in such great numbers who are burnt while cooking. Are there not men who cook at home or in street-side restaurants?” he asked.

Supreme Court advocate and human rights activist Zia Ahmed Awan blamed society and its stereotypes for domestic violence against women.

“Women are not aware of their rights and blindly follow what society dictates,” he claimed.

Legal loopholes

Another fact contributing to it is the lack of any clear law in the Pakistan Penal Code on domestic violence. The advocate said that the system is such that if a woman musters enough courage to report a case against her husband, the police will not register the case and if they do, it will be nothing more than a non-cognizant report. “What should be done is that the police should take the patient’s statement as soon as she arrives in the hospital. What happens is that after a few days the family strikes a deal with the offender and the whole issue is settled,” he said. “Women should not give up easily and should fight back. It is the government’s responsibility to provide protection to its citizen — men and women — be it inside the home or outside,” he added.

Though there have been very few cases in which those who burnt their wives or women of the family were bought to justice, it is much more disappointing to see victims give up their rights and put up with torture and not raise their voices against it.

Source: Dawn