The BBC reported today about the rising level of self-immolation among young women in Afghanistan. Their report ties the rise with extreme poverty, domestic violence and lack of women’s rights in the country. It tells the tragic tell of women who feel their situations are so desperate that they have no other choice.
The piece echoes what we have been hearing from Interplast partner Dr. Chandini Perera. She runs Sri Lanka’s only burn unit, where more than 80 percent of her patients, mainly women, are victims of domestic abuse, violence and self-immolation. Like in Afghanistan, there is a tragic rise of self-inflicted burns among women in Sri Lanka, which also has the highest rate of suicide in the world. According to Perera, more than 70 percent of her patients (more than 500 patients in 2008 alone), have inflicted themselves with disabling burns, losing all hope after years of horrible abuse.
For example, Kumari, a young mother, suffered repeated beatings and marital rape from her alcoholic husband. The last horrible beating and rape were too much for Kumari (pictured above) to bear and she set herself on fire, seeing no other way. When Perera met Kumari, her head was sealed to her chest, her arms could not move; she could not feed herself, and was pregnant as a result of marital rape.
“Kumari is a classic case of domestic violence. A young wife puts up with the beatings because in our culture it is acceptable, because no one talks about it. We do not empower women to cope and seek help. Domestic abuse covers all spectrums of society, but those in lower socio-economic groups are most at risk because they do not have the power to divorce, leave their men or earn their own income,” said Perera. “In addition, in our part of the world when you are pregnant, you really only want to look at beautiful things; so if you are burned, deformed, abused, you can not even go to a maternity clinic because other pregnant women can not look upon you. It is difficult to get my patients even in the maternity ward of my own hospital! That is how stigmatized burns are.”
But Perera fought to get Kumari the maternity care she desperately needed and had the right to receive, even though she was disfigured. Perera also provided reconstructive surgery, rehabilitation and counseling for her. Kumari can move her head and arms again and her family has come to her aid and is helping with the children, including a new baby.
Perera believes that empowering burn victims to reenter society will help change social attitudes toward domestic abuse and disabilities—and hopefully, fewer women will suffer in the future. Her studies on the rise of self-immolation in Sri Lanka have been presented at the International Society of Burn Injuries and other international medical conferences, to raise awareness of this tragic and hidden trend.
Photo by Phil Borges.