READERS GUIDE“The Burn Journals describes a particular kind of youthful male desolation better than it has ever been described before, by anyone.” –Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading and discussion of Brent Runyon’s The Burn Journals, the provocative, raw, and unsparing account of Runyon’s long journey back to teenage life after a botched suicide attempt leaves him physically and emotionally shattered.
IntroductionTo fourteen-year-old Brent Runyon, life has become a haze of small failures. He hates himself for liking the same girl his best friend likes. His recent suicide attempts–sliced wrists, handfuls of pills, hangings–have left him very much alive and feeling stupid. And now the threat of disciplinary action by the principal looms large, ever since Brent set a school locker on fire just for the hell of it. There seems to be no choice but to do something from which he can’t turn back, something that will amend for all the bad things he’s done, all the pain he’s caused everyone. After seventh period one day, he says good-bye to a few friends, takes the bus home, chats with his brother in their driveway, then steps into the shower, puts on a gasoline-doused bathrobe, and lights a match.
The Burn Journals chronicles Brent’s harrowing recovery, from the fragmented reality of his months spent in the burn unit of a Washington, D.C., children’s hospital, to the tedium of full-time physical and psychological rehabilitation, and finally to his unsettling return home, where his old life awaits him, both gratifyingly familiar and terrifyingly foreign. Written in the dispassionate style of a young teen barely able to grasp his own complex web of emotions, this memoir offers an explicit, honest, and painfully unsentimental portrait of remorse and hope. As Brent struggles to convey to his parents–and to himself–his reasons for wanting to die, he slowly pieces together a tenuous but viable blueprint for wanting to live again.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. This memoir is unique in that Runyon chooses not to annotate his account from an adult perspective but rather to let his fourteen-year-old voice stand alone. How does this lack of analysis and retrospective insight shape the narrative? What effect does the detached, primitive, sometimes belligerent nature of this teenage voice have on the story?
2. Brent’s description of his mother’s eyes moments after the disaster–“her eyes . . . are the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen” [p. 18]–echoes studies on newborns’ reactions to their mothers’ eyes moments after birth. To what extent is Brent’s suicide an attempt to revert to an infantile state in which he will be unconditionally loved? Are all suicides overtures toward rebirth?
3. How does Brent’s nebulous adolescent understanding of his own sexuality play into his depression? Do his thwarted attempts at intimacy with women and girls read as comical or disturbing? Does he mature in this area over the course of the memoir?
4. Brent recounts several episodes that seem to suggest a lack of sensitivity on the part of his parents to his violent tendencies, even after his release from rehab. In one, his father employs Brent’s reluctant help in bludgeoning a possum to death. In another, his father buys Brent boxing gloves and allows Brent to knock him to the ground. In a third, Brent ponders his childhood practice of mutilating toys, a habit obviously unnoticed by his parents: “Poor Papa Smurf. . . . Sometimes we used to light a can of Lysol and spray him with fire. . . . We also tore the arms off of Cobra Commander and put his head in a vise. We took Duke, from G.I. Joe, and twisted him around until his spine snapped. . . . And then we set them on fire too. Why did we do that?” [p. 288] Are these passages intended to impugn Brent’s parents on some level? Or are they meant simply to pinpoint Brent’s growing awareness of violence and its ramifications? Why do you think he includes them?
5. Brent struggles to find a means to articulate his sorrow and regret over the disaster to his family. Yet when presented with family therapy specifically tailored to facilitating this kind of dialogue, Brent becomes reticent, unyielding, and sarcastic. Why?
6. Brent writes of his burn treatments: “There are two kinds of people in this world. People that have to lie on their stomachs for ten days straight and people that don’t. And the lucky bastards that don’t have to lie on their stomachs for ten motherfucking days are the ones that get to skate through life like they have their own personal Zamboni smoothing the way for them” [p. 82]. How much responsibility does Brent accept for his injury? To what extent does he blame fate?
7. Brent’s mantra, “I hate myself,” continues well after the fire. How much of this can be attributed to the normal pains of adolescence? What are the signs that his self-loathing is abating or shifting by the time he returns to school?
8. Some of the memoir’s most excruciating dialogues occur in the context of psychological evaluation. In the presence of a family therapist, Brent has a bizarre argument with his mother over whether five or ten minutes of silence have passed [p. 136]. During a session with two psychologists, Brent accuses one of the doctors of saying “scarcastic” instead of “sarcastic” [p. 216]. Do these episodes suggest true madness, or does Brent purposefully warp his ostensible grasp on reality in order to get attention? What sort of agony do you think therapy sessions like those Brent describes can invoke for a teenage boy?
9. In Darkness Visible, his memoir of mental illness, William Styron writes, “Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self–to the mediating intellect–as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.” Does The Burn Journals succeed in rendering Runyon’s depression comprehensible to readers? Is this book an appropriate cautionary or helpful tale for depressed teenagers to read?
10. One reviewer wrote of The Burn Journals: “[Brent] isn’t spared the sight of the pain felt by his family and friends, as he would have been had he died. In accepting the burden of the anguish he caused them, he finds healing and a new depth to his relationships” [“The Burn Journals A Gripping Must-Read” by Karyn Saemann,The Capital Times, November 5, 2004]. Is this an accurate assessment? If so, what evidence is there of Brent’s healing? Which relationships are deepened and renewed?
11. When Brent’s parents ask him if he is involved in the occult, Brent is overwhelmed and hurt by their ignorance of him. “They know nothing about me. Nothing at all. . . . Why don’t they love me? Why don’t they take care of me? Why don’t they act like I’m their son? . . . I can’t believe how little they know me” [p. 192]. Does Brent ever convey this sense of betrayal to them? Does this issue of misinterpretation reach a denouement?
12. When Brent is given permission to forgo his plastic face mask when he goes back to school, why does he hesitate?
13. Which of Brent’s caregivers makes the most lasting difference in his recovery process? Why?
14. The passages that describe Brent’s burn care routine in the hospital are graphic, even grisly. What role do they play in the memoir?
15. When a nurse suggests that Brent ought to be grateful for his lapses in memory after the fire, Brent’s mental response is, “I don’t want to forget anything. I don’t care if they are terrible memories. They’re mine” [p. 86]. To what extent is Brent’s journey out of darkness a process of reclamation? What societal forces could cause an upper-middle-class white teenager to feel disenfranchised or in need of reclaiming what is rightfully his?
About this AuthorBrent Runyon is a regular contributor to public radio programs including This American Life. He lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Suggested ReadingMargaret Bullitt-Jonas, Holy Hunger; Augusten Burroughs, Running with Scissors; Frank Conroy, Stop-Time; Nick Flynn, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City; Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face; Kay Redfield Jamison, Night Falls Fast; Mary Karr, Cherry; Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted; Brad Land, Goat; J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye; Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon; William Styron, Darkness Visible; Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness.
Each year in countries like India, thousands of young women are burned to death or afflicted with fatal burns. They are victims of dowry deaths. The husband and/or in-laws have determined that the dowry, a gift given from the daughter's parents to the husband, was inadequate and therefore attempt to murder the new bride to make the husband available to remarry or to punish the bride and her family. Unfortunately, this is a domestic issue that is often ignored or minimized, and the prosecution is often inadequate. This review article illustrates various scenarios of dowry deaths, investigates different predispositions, summarizes the current legislation, and proposes solutions to this problem. One hopes that the exposure of this problem may curtail its rampant, yet well-hidden, prevalence.
Every day in India, young wives are burned by upset husbands and in-laws who perceive the dowries (marriage gifts) as being inadequate. This article is written to bring attention to this unfortunate and despicable practice to the burn community in hopes of decreasing its incidence. Herein, we define the term dowry, analyze the reports of dowry-related deaths, describe the injuries, and offer ideas to curtail its pervasiveness in African and Indian regions.
The dowry concept arose from the fact that Indian women cannot inherit property. Traditionally, a bride's parents gave her gifts of gold ornaments and silver utensils to take to her husband's house after marriage. It was innocuous, known as stridhan (a woman's riches), and rarely ended in any problems.1 Sharma et al2 report that dowry started in ancient times as “varadakshina,” given in all humility by the parents of the bride to the groom voluntarily, out of love and affection and to honor him. But now, Sharma et al state that the stridhan (clothes, ornaments, utensils) given to the bride by her parents has become an integral part of the dowry and is claimed as a right by the in-laws. In fact, in addition to the gold jewelry and clothes, today's requirement often includes cars, scooters, or televisions. Families of the bride could be asked to set up business and even procure visas to go abroad.1
Sharma et al also note that in the present form, dowry is not a feudal remnant. It is a product of an emerging capitalist ethos—the offshoot of an unequal society, a result of rampant consumerism, aided and abetted by the black-market economy. Its increasing incidence is symbolic of continuing erosion and devaluation of women's status in independent India.2 In fact, families of bridegrooms who are better educated, more qualified with foreign degrees, have often demanded even larger dowry. As expected, doctors, engineers, and civil service officers command the biggest dowries, sometimes up to one crore (U.S. $250,000). Impoverished families do the worst because they often have to take on large debts to marry their daughters.2
Many in India and Africa will state that it is not the dowry concept at fault but that the spirit of the tradition has been abused. Historically and traditionally, the dowry was a communal affair, but now it is individualistic. Retired Nairobi sociologist Ronald Okuta adds, “It was a permanent bond, now it's extortion.”1
Sharma et al explain why fire is used as the mechanism of murder and suicide in the young brides. They state that the fire and its searing/cleansing powers have been held in great reverence and fear in the Indian psyche. He retells the story of Ramayana, an Indian mythological story of the Lord Rama, who, after rescuing his wife Sita from the clutches of the demon king Ravana, made her publicly walk through fire to prove her chastity. This extended to cleansing and blessing of human bonds and relationships (havans and pheras, ie, Hindu rituals wherein the blessings of Agni, the God of fire are sought). From this background, setting oneself on fire may have arrived as an Indian means of honorable suicide.2
Dowry-related deaths encompass thousands of young brides who are doused with kerosene and set ablaze for failing to satisfy the demands of their husband's families for gold, cash, and consumer goods.3 Countless brides in India are constantly harassed in their matrimonial homes because their fathers have fallen behind in the payment of endless dowry installments, or the dowry she did bring to her husband is regarded as too meager.4 She may have overheard her in-laws, even her own husband, talk casually about harassing her and even killing her.4
In Bangalore, India, at Victoria Hospital's burn ward, there are women lying in rows wrapped like mummies. Rugene et al1 report of Sheila, a 20-year-old female working in a garment factory. Her parents decided to marry her to Rajanna, an auto rickshaw driver, and gave him a gold chain, a ring, and Rs 10,000 (U.S. $250). However, after the marriage, her in-laws demanded that she hand over all her monthly earnings and that her parents buy them a color TV. When Sheila refused, she was doused with kerosene and set on fire. With 90% burns, Sheila died before her neighbors could take her to the hospital.
The newspaper Asiatica reported an incident in Lucknow, India. Married barely 4 months ago, a newly wedded bride was allegedly set ablaze by her in-laws. With 90% burns, the 22-year-old victim was battling for life at the KG Medical Center. The patient's father alleged that she had been subjected to severe physical and mental torture by her in-laws from the very next day of the marriage for want of dowry. On a Friday afternoon, the father was informed by some neighbors of the husband that his daughter had been admitted with severe burns. The in-laws of the patient claimed that she was preparing food when her clothes accidentally caught fire. However, the husband, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law were accused and later arrested.5
Some dowry deaths are not directly inflicted by the husbands or in-laws but instead by suicide because the bride has been subjected to prolonged verbal and physical abuse. Dugger3 reported on Geetha, 20, who had moved in with her husband's family after an arranged marriage in 1999. Within months, Geetha states, her husband and her mother-in-law began beating her with either a kitchen ladle, a broomstick, or stalks of sugar cane. They believed she was shirking her housekeeping duties. She sifted stones from the rice, fetched the water, washed the clothes. and fed her husband's nephew. However, she said she had not yet spread a dung mixture smoothly on the front step by the time he got home. At any rate, he told her that if he could get another wife, she would do everything. Geetha poured the kerosene on herself in a suicide attempt and suffered 57% TBSA partial-thickness and full-thickness burns. Geetha, the youngest of five sisters, knew that her elderly mother and father, poor subsistence farmers, had gone deeply into debt to pay for her dowry and wedding. She relays that “With great difficulty they had married me off and I did not want them to know I was suffering. I wanted them to believe I was happy.”3
Finally, a Karachi, Pakistan newspaper reported on December 7, 2000, of a man, Ataullah, setting his wife Aisha on fire and inflicting her with 70% TBSA burns. Aisha's mother, in attempts to gain custody of her 1 and a half-year old granddaughter, reported that Aisha was subjected to “brutal torture for not bringing dowry.” Thus, the mother was forced to borrow money and arrange dowry of $2000. Eventually this did not satisfy the husband, and she was set afire. At the initial questioning, Aisha had told doctors that she was burnt accidentally. Later in her statements to others and before officials, however, she affirmed that her husband was responsible for her injury because she had refused to give him more dowry money. Aisha eventually died.6
Dowry deaths are exclusively of women—mainly young, newly married women. They are classified as dowry murders (committed by the woman's husband or members of his family for additional dowry or nonpayment of promised dowry); dowry suicides (forced or voluntary, but in most cases related to dowry demands); and dowry accidents (a majority classed under “stove-burst” or “kitchen-accident”).7
Rugene and Basu1 report that an estimated 15,000 women are killed over dowry in India every year, most commonly by being doused with kerosene and set ablaze. In fact, in India, kerosene is a ubiquitous cooking fuel that is likened to a cheap and handy weapon as much as a gun or baseball bat in an American home.3 However, another source reports an estimated 25,000 brides are killed or maimed worldwide every year over dowry disputes.2 In Bangalore, India, the burns ward reports 90 admissions every month, with 90% of these women having been set on fire.1 In fact, in Bangalore alone, the incidence has risen to 6975 in 1998 from 4648 in 1995.3 Elizabeth reported at the World Bank Conference of Karnataka, her area of study, that there were 570 cases of dowry deaths from 1996 to 1998. However, during these 2 years, only 22 persons were convicted.8 Of the women who die unnatural deaths each year overall, more than half are from burns.3
Therefore, it is not surprising that dowry deaths join female infanticide as a major reason why there are 926 women for every 1000 men in the country.1 The global health burden from violence against women in the reproductive age group is about 9.5 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs), comparable with risk factors such as tuberculosis (10.9 million DALYs), HIV (10 million DALYs), and sepsis during childbirth (10 million DALYs).9
Another study in the publication Women's Health in South-East Asia reported records in Maharashtra, India, and examined the cause of dowry deaths and the perpetrator profiles. It covered 120 cases of dowry deaths of women and found that the women were very young—88% were less than 25 years of age. Forty-six percent of these women had died of burns, and the principal person accused was the husband in 86% of the 120 cases of homicide.9 In agreement, Sharma et al2 reported that of 385 cases of deaths caused by burns in Chandigarh, India, 292 (76%) were females. Of the 292 females, 228 were married, and 248 (85%) of these female burn fatalities belonged to a lower socioeconomic group. They also observed that even though a young Indian girl is taught cooking by the age of 13 to 14 years and is married by 17 to 18 years, only 4% of female burn fatalities were less than 15 years of age.2
Unfortunately, dowry disputes and deaths receive less-than-deserved attention because there are so many other problems in India, such as street beggars, lepers, street children, and bonded laborers.4 Nonetheless, the figures for dowry deaths far outnumber the deaths that are traffic related.
Another cause of concern is the fact that newly married females constitute the majority of such “stove burst” deaths when in fact females belonging to all age groups have to work in the kitchen. The increase in burn deaths among newly married females suggests clearly that such deaths cannot be attributed to household accidents occurring in the kitchen and are very likely linked to homicide.2 What is surprising, according to Sharma et al2, is that these young females do not suffer burn injuries in their parental home but in the so-called ”kitchen accidents“ in the house of their in-laws. Only in a very small percentage of kitchen accidents was it noted in the hospital records that other members of the family had also sustained burns in an attempt to extinguish the fire and were treated for it. In the majority of the cases, there is no such history because the woman was allegedly alone in the house at that particular time.2
It is true that there is evidence that stoves can be deadly. For example, in Bangalore, 7165 people died in stove accidents in 1998, and 1280 of them were men, a fact suggesting that not all of the deaths were a result of hidden domestic violence against wives.3 Thus, it is very important to discern between purposeful and accidental burns when prosecuting the husband and his family.
Dr. Gurumurthy at Victora Government Hospital in India states that there is a high mortality rate in his burns ward. Although other hospitals can treat cases that have up to 50% burns, all the cases above 80% are sent to his hospital. He believes that all patients with burns up to 50% should survive, and above that some should survive.7 Unfortunately, this hospital's experience does not represent that of other hospitals across the Indian subcontinent.
Currently, the burn care available to the indigenous peoples of India and other developing countries is less ample then what is available in westernized countries. A patient may not have her eschars débrided for many days after her burn because there is a feeling that the biological dressing is more successful at protecting the wound than limited quantities of sterile gauze dressings. In addition, there may be large delays in organizing operative plans for skin graft secondary to limited amount of donor tissue and sparse resources. Finally, there are not enough surgeons trained in executing excision and grafting of large burns.
Therefore, mortality is found to increase with the extent of burns, and the highest number of fatalities (54%) occurred with burns exceeding 60% TBSA.10 If the female dowry death patients do not die from the burns at the scene of injury, they die soon after from other immediate manifestations of their injury, such as neurogenic and hypovolemic shock. Massive burns can eventually be complicated by septicemia and multiple organ failure. In India, only a few hospitals have the intensive care capacity to adequately manage the resuscitative needs of severely burned patients. Therefore, their survival is less likely.
The etiology for dowry deaths could be argued to be a result of general maltreatment of women and the persistent justification of domestic violence by women themselves. In fact, more than half of married women justified wife beating in a recently released survey of 90,000 women sponsored by India's Health Ministry. They said that they would receive such punishment for neglecting housekeeping and child-rearing duties, showing disrespect to in-laws, going out without a husband's permission, or arousing a husband's suspicion of infidelity. In addition, they found that 12% of the women said they had been harassed for dowry.3 In a second survey of 10,000 Indian women, a United States Agency for International Development reported that more than half of the women said violence was a normal part of married life. Again, the most common reasons given were a wife's perceived failures to perform household duties.3
Menon11 describes the dowry death situation at the 40-bed female burns ward of the Victoria Government Hospital in India. She states that the female patients are mostly young, married, and are from lower middle class or poor economic backgrounds. Finally, a great majority of the victims (91.43%) are illiterate, attesting to the inequality of access to education and the potential reluctance to prosecute the offenders.10
Another less significant factor that may account for the higher general incidence of burns in women is their wardrobe. Loose, voluminous, highly inflammable synthetic garments, such as the long waist-wrapped sarees, catch fire easily.10 But despite a young bride exhibiting some of the factors that could statistically increase her chances of being burned in the kitchen, they cannot explain the high incidence in the young newly married females because all women and girls cook, all wear sarees, and all spend time in the kitchen.
In the last 20 years, legislation has been instituted to curtail the incidence of dowry-related deaths. For example, Section 304-B of the Indian Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) addresses the presumption of dowry death and defines it as the death of a woman caused by burns or bodily injury in the setting of harassment for dowry. It upholds that such a death will be called a dowry death, and the husband/ relative shall be deemed to have caused the death.6
Cruelty is defined in further legislation as any willful conduct likely to drive the woman to suicide or cause grave injury to life, limb, or health, as well as harassment with a view to securing property. Corresponding to this, the CPC has been amended in the form of Section 174.3 It provides for a mandatory autopsy when the case involves suicide of a woman who has been married for 7 years or less, if a relative has made a request, or if there is doubt regarding the cause of death. In Section 498A, the CPC has delineated that punishments include fines and imprisonment up to 3 years.8 These laws have been instituted, but they are difficult to enforce.
The major difficulty of prosecution is the capacity that the perpetrators have to concoct a believable story to relieve them of responsibility for the bride's death or injury. There are many stories that are told by the suspects to prevent them from being implicated. For example, the usual explanation given for such death is that the woman caught a fire accidentally while cooking a meal or preparing tea or snacks.10 Sharma et al2 state that despite the common story of a stove burst or pouring kerosene into a burning stove, it was noted by the investigating officers that the cooking appliance was actually a gas stove and not a kerosene one. In fact, Sharma et al report that the interrogation of the relatives by the author revealed that in 11 of 38 (29%) cases of alleged deaths caused by kerosene stove burst that there was not even a stove in the kitchen.2
In addition, police are handicapped because most important clues at the scene might be destroyed intentionally. Both family members and neighbors are usually noncooperative because of charged sentiment and perceptions of the police.10 In many cases, even the dead body of the victim is unavailable because the offenders have disposed of the body by cremation without informing the police or the relatives of the deceased individual.10
LACK OF FAMILY SUPPORT
In addition, the women's own families are felt to be partially liable. The parents will not allow the daughter to return home for safety and will essentially tell her to ”adjust“ to her new married life. They assert that opting out of the marriage would expose them to social ridicule. In fact, some families have married their second daughter to the same man who killed their first daughter for dowry.1
Furthermore, Menon's inquiry at the Dowry Cell of New Delhi Police Department revealed that most of the parents of the bride do not want to take their daughter back. Thus, the alternative for the scared bride is to go to one of the government shelters. However, these shelters are controlled by bureaucrats, who are accused by the female victim of taking advantage of the helpless victims.4 Thus the bride may choose to die at the hand of her in-laws than to move to the shelter.4
DELAY OF JUSTICE
Another obstacle in the prosecution of domestic violence cases, especially dowry-related cases, is the delay of the litigation process. The delay between filing of the case and trial can sometimes be so long that the memory of the witnesses may be affected. In addition, the interests of the witnesses during this period may have so changed that they will be unwilling to come to court and provide their evidence. The prosecution's case may then fail.8 Because of the apathy of police in registering complaints and the lengthy litigation process in the lower courts, a dowry death case often takes over 10 years to be heard. Meanwhile, autopsy reports of the victim are tampered, and even the initial records are changed.1
Because of the ramifications that a delay in the investigative proceedings and institution of the case may cause, Section 167 of the Code of Criminal Procedure 1973 was put into place. It states that in a summons case the investigation must be concluded within a period of 6 months. Unfortunately, this legislation was applied in a 1986 High Court case of a woman who sustained burn injuries and died 3 days later. The police report to the Magistrate was dated beyond the period of 1 year from the date of the alleged offense. Thus, the High Court ruled that the Magistrate should not have taken cognizance of the offense as the police report was beyond 1 year from the date of the commission of the offense and therefore the proceedings against the husband should be quashed.8
There are two kinds of evidence that have been declared inadmissible in the cases that we have studied: dying declarations and confessions. A dying declaration is a statement made by a person shedding some light on the cause of his/her death before their death. Unfortunately, dying declarations may be the only evidence usable to convict the guilty. Often because of carelessness or callousness, a reliable dying declaration is not recorded and thus not accepted by the court, very often leading to the acquittal of the accused.8 However, in 1997, in the case of Adevappa Nagappa Anagolkar v. State of Karnataka, a dying woman had given two statements after sustaining a 90% burn, one recorded immediately upon being admitted to the hospital by the duty doctor stating that the burns had been accidentally caused, and then a later one recorded by the Magistrate implicating the husband. This case compelled the court to at least encourage officials to record the dying statement and ensure that the maker of the statement had not been influenced, tutored, or induced to make a coerced false statement.8
In fact, when a severely burnt woman is admitted into the hospital and a statement is taken from her, she is, more often than not, under pressure from her immediate family, especially her husband and in-laws, not to implicate them. They may use emotional blackmail or threats to achieve their aim. The women usually believe that they will survive the burns and therefore try to preserve their marriage. Thus, they declare that the burns were an accident. It is only later, when they realize their condition, that they are willing to state the exact sequence of events and all the facts. There is often a failure to realize this mental state of the woman. As a result, the very dying declaration meant to help achieve justice ends up acquitting the accused.
This work aimed to expose the unfortunate phenomena of dowry bride burning and attempts to report various solutions to the problem. For example, Elizabeth8 felt that the situation in Karnataka indicated the need for a very meticulous investigation process and for better training of doctors, police officers, and others authorized to record the dying declarations and investigate the case. There is a message that in every case of female burns, a thorough investigation must be conducted by the investigating officer. He must provide proper history to the Forensic/Medic legal expert, allowing him to pick up any evidence available during autopsy and decide whether the case is in favor of homicide or not.10 It is necessary to have comprehensive legislation that will take care of all aspects of the problem and provide appropriate relief to women.8
The next requirement is training and sex sensitization of the judiciary, the police personnel, the prosecutors, and the medical practitioners. It is important that the various functionaries involved in the legal process are sensitized to appreciate the problems and therefore to aid and assist women at every stage of the process. What is required in addition to this are courts that will deal exclusively with cases of domestic violence to ensure a speedy trial and the appointment of specially trained personnel.8
In addition it seems imperative to ensure the legal literacy of women so that they can be more successful at identifying the assault and pursuing prosecution of the suspected individuals. As we have seen, one of the main reasons for cases failing in the courts is the lack of proper evidence. If the organizations can maintain meticulous records of the women's complaint and the appropriate medical and other evidence that comes to their notice, it would be very helpful for the prosecution during the trial.8
A promising development in recent times are the efforts made by the state and nonstate sectors to create viable, community-level responses to domestic violence, to break the silence and provide meaningful solutions to women suffering abuse. For example, one such initiative is the Nari Adalat run by the Mahila Samakhya program, which provides an informal justice system whereby ”women's courts“ meet regularly to address cases related to women, including domestic violence, rape, divorce, land disputes, and child abuse.8
Exposure of the prevalence and manifestations of dowry deaths may also help decrease the incidence. For example, the film industry has become involved. “Gift of Love” is renowned Indian filmmaker Meera Dewan's exposé on dowry deaths. By juxtaposing photos of the radiant happy brides on their wedding day with those of them horrifically burned over 90% of their bodies, she makes a powerful statement. Interviews with the brides' parents reveal that they gave everything from televisions to Godrej cupboards to gold to their daughters in dowry but it was never enough for the insatiable in-laws. As one heartbroken father whose daughter was burned to death observes of her in-laws, ”I gave them everything, but I could not give them a heart.“ In this film, the deaths are made to pass as accidents caused by defective kerosene stoves, but the fact remains that such accidents cause only partial and frontal burns. These women are burned over their entire bodies, which could only be caused by dousing them in kerosene and setting them afire.12
Finally, Madhu Kishwar, a feminist, states that nothing will subdue the dowry problem until women are given a right to inheritance and until the patriarchal system, which devalues women, is reformed.1 With such measures and approaches to the problem of dowry bride burning, we may see a reduction in the rate of incidence of dowry death and an increase in the cases that put the perpetrators behind bars.
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Copyright © 2004, by the American Burn Association