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Yet another burning issue

SALMAN NIZAMI

- FILE PHOTO: NISSAR AHMAD

A blossoming valley but gloomy women.

Even the poorest families in Kashmir have matches and cooking fuel. The combination usually sustains life. But it can also be the making of a horrifying escape from poverty, abuse and depression. The night before she burned herself, Azra Bano (name changed) took her children to her sister's house for a family party. All seemed well. Later it emerged that she had not brought a present, and a relative had chided her for it, said her son Maroof Ahmed. This small thing apparently broke her.

Zahida (name changed), who was 45, the mother of six children and who earned pitiably little cleaning houses, ended up with nearly 60 per cent burns at the SMHS hospital, Srinagar.

Srinagar's two main hospitals — SMHS and SKIMS — receive three or four such cases weekly. A large number of people, mostly from villages, don't even reach the hospitals — they die on the way or in local health centres.

The main reason, of course, is the lack of medical care and trained staff in rural hospitals and health centres. It takes hours for emergency patients to reach hospitals in Srinagar. As per records, around 30 per cent people with burns survive in hospitals.

Women in Kashmir have suffered enormously since the separatist struggle became violent in 1989-90. Like the women in other conflict zones, they have been raped, tortured, maimed and killed. A few of them were even jailed for years together. According to a study by the Medecins Sans Frontieres, Kashmiri women are among the worst sufferers of sexual violence in the world.

“Sexual violence has been routinely perpetrated on Kashmiri women, with 11.6 per cent of the respondents saying they were victims of sexual abuse,” says the 2005 study, adding that the figure is much higher than that of Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka and Chechnya. A study by the Kashmir University's Department of Sociology in 2002 revealed that 90 per cent of the estimated 10,000 Kashmiri war widows didn't remarry.

Says prominent sociologist Dr. Bashir Ahmed Dabla: “Throughout the world, it's found that suicide rates are the highest among men and more intense in urban areas, but in the Valley the reverse is true.”

He cited the raging conflict as the underlying factor. The most sinister burns cases are actually homicides masquerading as suicides, said doctors, nurses and human rights workers. “We have two women here right now who were burnt by their mothers-in-law and husbands,” said the hospital's surgeon Dr. Nadeem Ahmed.

Engaged at 16 and married at 18, Farzana Akther (name changed) set herself on fire when her father-in-law belittled and teased her, saying she was not brave enough to do so. She was 20 and had endured years of beatings and abuse by her husband and his family. Defiant and depressed, she went into the yard. She handed over their nine-month-old daughter to her husband so that the child would not see her mother burning. Then she poured cooking fuel on herself.

For a very few of the women who survive burns, the experience helps them change their lives. Some work with lawyers and request a divorce; most do not. Many women mistakenly think death will be instant. Halima (name changed), 20, a patient in the hospital in January, said she considered jumping from a roof but was worried she would only break her leg. If she set herself on fire, she said, “it would all be over.”

The problem is grave amongst widows also who, after losing their husbands, the sole bread earners of the family, had to single-handedly take care of the children. The lack of financial and emotional support on the part of the families and society has put these widows in peril. “Losing the sole bread earner of the family and a life partner brings disaster to women. The problems become serious when she is left with children, who are toddlers or teens. All of a sudden, all the burden is put on her. She has to earn, support and bring up her children. The very thought of these pressures is too disturbing for any women,” said Dr. Nadeem of the SMHS hospital. He added that women, who lose support from in-laws and have no support from parents either, fall prey to severe mental pressure and depression.

While some women are able to reside in their parents' house, most are forced to live all alone with their children. “After losing husband, she feels insecure. This feeling is augmented when her in-laws and sometimes even parents are not in a condition to provide her financial and emotional support. She feels destitute, alone and insecure.” The burden of the responsibilities of earning, educating and bringing up children all alone becomes a life-long pressure to these women, most of whom prefer not to remarry. “Since most of the widows do not marry for different reasons, they are put to pressures all life which are never shared. When stress is perpetuated for years, it gives rise to depression and hence, she sets herself on fire, added the doctor.

In the hospital, Zahida rallied at first, and her son Maroof Ahmed was encouraged, unaware of how difficult it is to survive such extensive burns. The greatest risk is sepsis, a deadly infection that generally starts in the second week of a burn injury and is hard to stop. Even badly burnt and infected patients can speak almost up to the hour of their death, often giving families a false hope. “She was getting better,” her son insisted. But the infection had, in fact, set in and the family did not have the money for powerful antibiotics that could give her whatever small chance there was to survive. Two weeks after his mother set herself on fire, Maroof stood by her bed as she stopped breathing.

(The writer is a freelance journalist and his email is salmannizami@gmail.com)

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