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BBC’s Report on Immolation Echoes Interplast Partner’s Experience in Sri Lanka

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.

Kumari 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.

International Women's Day

Dr. Chandini Perera with patient

On this International Women’s Day, we would like to reintroduce you to Interplast’s partner Dr. Chandini Perera of Sri Lanka.

Chandini (shown above) is one of only six plastic surgeons in Sri Lanka and head of the country's burn care facility.  She heals and empowers abused women with disabling burns (mainly from acid burns and self-immolation; 70 percent of her patients are abused women).  Her patients include Kanchana (shown below), whose boyfriend threw acid on her in anger of her leaving the village for nursing school; she is now a nurse at the National Hospital of Colombo.

Kanchana Burns are the only injury that happens more to women than men—mainly because of domestic chores on open fires but tragically, often because of domestic abuse.  To give context to how large a problem it is, nearly 4 million women fall victim to a severe burn from fire each year—the same number who are diagnosed with HIV/AIDS every year. 

As you celebrate International Women’s Day today, we hope you will remember women in developing countries who suffer from disabling burns and women like Dr. Chandini Perera who helps heal and empower them.  To learn more about Chandini and her work, check out NPR’s interview with her.

Photos by Phil Borges.

The Lancet: Fires Kill Women in India

Renu. Ravages of Burns Before          IMG_7992

On Monday, The Lancet published a study stating that more than 100,000 young women were killed in fires in India in a single year, and many of those deaths were tied to domestic abuse.

These findings substantiate Interplast’s study on the forgotten global health crisis of burns and give further evidence that Southeast Asia (which includes India) is the epicenter of the crisis.

We are pleased that The Lancet and many newspapers across the country covered this important issue.  However, this study only discusses deaths by fires.  What about the women who survive, but who are left disfigured and disabled in ways unimaginable in the United States?

Some of them become Interplast patients and we help restore their abilities to use their hands or move their head again; yet, there are millions more who are left as outcasts and with permanent disabilities.  Burns are a neglected health issue that is solvable with more resources for prevention, better acute care, reconstructive surgery and rehabilitation.  Nearly 4 million women worldwide receive a severe burn every year---the same number of women who are diagnosed with HIV/AIDS annually.  Isn’t it time to make burns a global health priority?

Above are photographs of  Renu, an Interplast patient and victim of domestic abuse in Dehradun, where she just received surgery to release her contractures around her mouth and nose.  The first one is of her before she was set on fire.  After photo by John Urban.

Global Health