To improve the healthcare of the country, we need to improve the lives of women. These were the paraphrased words that Gayatri Ganesh— Director of Development at Christian Hospital Mungeli opened with as she explained to us the convoluted healthcare policies that govern the State of Chhattisgarh. The woman is the central lifeline in every household. They run the house, nurse children, and most of the times also work either on the fields or as labour. However, they are also on the lowest rung in the social ladder of the family. They are usually pulled out of school earlier than males, fed less, as well as have a lower exposure to the world outside of their home and the one that they go to after marriage. On the first day of our internship, we went on rounds with the head doctor of the hospital—Dr. Anil Henry. We started in the ICU on the second floor and made our way down. The last place we went to was the Burn Unit. The unit was a room isolated into the far end of the hospital’s maternal wing. As you walk through 30 or so beds of tired mothers, mewling-puking babies, and equally tired relatives you are welcomed by a smell stark smell of formaldehyde which only gets stronger as you get closer to the light at the corner of the hall. We bravely followed Dr. Henry into this alien space to be introduced to our burnt patient. The patient was sitting upright with a bed sheet covering them. They had small boy-cut hair and pinkish scabs resplendent all over their body. The patient was an eighteen year old girl named Riya (name changed). She came in a month before we had arrived with third degree kerosene burns. Her while body was covered with burns while the most severe ones where on her abdomen, neck and arms. Her face was burnt as well but parts of it was still preserved with her original skin. The flames that had charred her skin had also burnt the hairs in her lungs, making her open to a host of diseases and leaving her in unbearable pain. When I saw her the first time, I was numb. I was unable to process how this even happened. Dr. Henry examined her bandages and moved out of the room. We followed. As we walked away Dr. Henry stopped and explained to us what we had just seen. Riya was a case of Bride Burning. While her story is confidential she is one of the many cases that take place all over this country.
Bride burnings are an act of domestic violence where women are set on fire, usually under the disguise of a suicide or accident. These acts are usually done due to dowry conflicts or when the girl is unable to produce a son that can further the family lineage. When Riya came into the hospital, the family members said that it was an accident where a spark came from the sky and lit the kerosene lying next to her which resulted in her catching on fire. They claimed that it was a freak accident. Riya did not disagree to the claim, possibly because the family members were staring right next to her. There was also something peculiar about her burns. While her whole body had burns, her face was mostly burn-free but the back of her hands sustained deep injury. This meant that she had enough time to understand what was about to happen to her and was able to cup her face. How can that happen in a freak accident where a spark lit kerosene on the ground?
Her case wasn't the only one that we saw in our two months. Two other women came to the hospital with similar injuries. Chest burnt completely, face was less burnt while the hands very deeply injured. The second woman’s family members claimed that the lamp lying on top of the air cooler fell on her while she was asleep. This while more probable still makes us wonder why her face is relatively burn free. We were there when the second bride came in and one of the first question that the nurses asked the patient was how long she had been married for. She said that she had just completed her seventh year. This number is a very important because according to the Indian Penal Code (IPC 304-B) if a bride is “within 7 years of her marriage is killed and it is shown that soon before her death, she was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband, or any relative of her husband, or in connection with any demand for dowry, such death shall be called 'dowry death' and such husband or relative shall be deemed to have caused her death.” The nurses therefore ask to see if the husband had simply waited for the seventh year to end to commit the act. For our second patient, it seemed as thought that was the case.
Out of the three women we witnessed, only Riya survived. Bride Burnings are a true reality that I don't think even Indians know about. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2010 there were 8391 dowry death cases in that year itself. This meant that every 90 minutes a bride was being burned. I was shocked to my core when I saw these women. I felt extremely helpless and the truth of the matter is that there is very little that could be done. While there is evidence that this was a bride burning case, the victims rarely agree to the deed because of familial pressures usually from both sides. Legally, the hospital will file a medical report to the police office in the village where the incident took place but since it’s such a hush-hush deed, the only witnesses there would be the husband and his parents— none of whom would confess. Hence due to a lack of evidence most cases are shut or deemed an accident and the bride would be brought back to the house— for the next torture.
Meeting of the Mitanins: Mitanins (in Hindi means "friend") are community health workers that work in every village. They collect data on communicable diseases, pregnancies and relay information to the government as well as provide villagers with the correct medicines or refer them to the apt hospital. Chhattisgarh has one of the most successful Mitanin program with almost 80,000 women working as volunteers.