The other day, I happened to read the highlights of an article – “India Has a Female Suicide Crisis” published in Scientific American (December 2018, Vol 319, issue 6, p20-21) which reveals that Indian women are committing suicide at an alarming rate. It reveals that in 2016 Indian women — who constitute less than 18 percent of the world’s female population — accounted for more than 36 percent of female suicide deaths globally. It also states that such suicides are more in the age group of 15-29 which is said to be the highest rate among young and middle-aged women for countries with similar socio-demographics.
Hypothesizing about such disturbing high rate of women suicides in India, Rakhi Dandona, Professor of global health at the Public Health Foundation of India and the University of Washington states that such suicides may be “related to a clash between women’s aspirations and the rigidity of their social environment.” The paper also states that such suicide rates are higher in Southern Indian States, where “development and social advances have accelerated.” She also states that suicide rates in the rural, more traditional Northern states could be lower because women there may have “less knowledge that they could actually live a better life.”
These revelations are highly disturbing to read. More than the high rate of suicides, it is the speculation of the professor about the underlying cause for such deaths — clash between women’s aspirations and the rigidity of their social environment; accelerated development and social advances in southern states — which is pretty hard hitting to stomach. For, ‘aspirations’, and ‘development and social advances’ instead of empowering young women have turned out to be the very cause for their suicides, which is very unfortunate.
There is yet another pathetic story which is more shocking to read, for it tells about the death of women, mostly from our lower economic strata. A paper — “Gendered Pattern of Burn Injuries in India: A Neglected Health Issue” — published in Reproductive Health Matters (2016) by Padma Bhate-Deosthali and Lakshmi Lingam reveals shocking statistics about deaths/suicidal deaths of women who are less empowered and economically highly vulnerable. Reviewing “the existing literature on burn injuries in India” and tracing the “gaps in recognizing the gendered factors leading to a high number of women dying due to burns”, the authors of the paper stressed the “need to investigate the abnormally high number of accidental burns amongst young women aged 18-35.” As I finished reading the paper, a sudden silence and glum engulfed me. But first the facts:
- Annually an estimated 7 million burn injuries are reported in India
- of which 700,000 cases require hospital admission,
- of which 140,000 are reported fatal;
- that 91,000 of these deaths are of women;
- that this death figure is higher than that for maternal mortality, and
- that “deaths due to burns are four times higher among women aged 18-35 years.
Reviewing the community studies from India, the authors opined that dowry-related violence is an important cause of bride burning or dowry deaths of women and such incidents are reported more from the lower socioeconomic strata of the society. A study carried out by Vimochana about unnatural deaths in marriages reported from Bengaluru during 1997-99 revealed that 70% of these reported deaths of young brides were closed in police records as accidental deaths.
A similar analysis carried out by the Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT) in 2014 in a large tertiary hospital in Mumbai revealed that in 62% of 133 cases there is a difference about the cause of burns between the information posted in the medical records — ‘accidental’, ‘no information’ — and the records of counsellors that had shown the cause as “suicidal, homicidal, and domestic violence”.
According to the authors, the existing laws make investigation of such unnatural deaths of married women within seven years of marriage mandatory. In all such investigations, obviously, doctors play an important role in recording dying declarations. Their opinion about the cause of death plays an important role. Yet, the medical profession, as the authors opined, treating the violence as private behaviour, unfortunately often found to limit themselves to treat the injuries leaving causes for burns unexamined except for once in a while casual remark such as: “it is unlikely for a person to suffer 60-80% burns if it is accidental”.
There is another side to this story of kitchen deaths, which command our attention. As we all know, Indian mothers invariably train their daughters in the kitchen about cooking and the safety measures thereof right from very young age, particularly those from the lower socioeconomic strata from which the burn cases are reported to be high. Now the question is: Why girls who cooked safely in natal homes, face burn-related injuries and death at marital homes?
This is a serious question that calls for critical analysis. An honest enquiry about this question is more likely to frustrate us. For, there appears to be something fishy behind these burn-deaths of 91,000 women per year.
Yet, societal approach to this social malady is quite unsatisfactory. We are not paying the required attention even to the management of the aftermath of the burn injuries of the victims. Treatment of survivors of burn injures is a long drawn process. They require reconstructive surgery, occupational therapy and rehabilitation plans. And the victims being women, that too, mostly hailing from poorer sections, the economic consequences of such burns and their treatment are very high. This becomes all the more serious in cases where such victims are disowned by their families, which incidentally, is not uncommon.
All this cumulatively calls for external intervention. In this regard corporates can play a vital role: as a part of their CSR programs, they can launch ‘awareness campaigns’ such as the ‘road-safety-campaign’ that they have recently launched, to make kitchens and cooking safe for every woman. Such campaigns can also educate health workers about domestic violence and also train them in identifying signs and symptoms of likely violence in families. It shall in turn enable social workers to counsel the vulnerable to seek timely external help.
Corporates could also help establishing and maintaining skin banks at major hospitals for using in grafts for treating wounds. They can also aid burn-victims with timely medical help, besides arranging counselling to overcome psychological trauma and get rehabilitated.
It is only through such external interventions that the society can be sensitized about the unfortunate suicide/accidental deaths among young women and make the families and community accountable for prevention of such deaths. Women Welfare Departments of State and Central governments, social groups/NGOs/ bodies engaged in promoting the welfare of the underprivileged in the society, etc. have a critical role to play in addressing the crisis of growing women suicides. It’s time, we act collectively…