Andrew Burd on young women in flames

Andrew BurdWhilst reading the 27 February issue of the South China Morning Post, my eye was caught by an article titled “Mother of girl set on fire vows court action.” This was a detailed story of a teenage girl in Anhui province who had kerosene poured over her and was set alight by a man whose advances she had refused. This happened last year and it would appear that the family had decided not to settle out of court with the assailants family to cover the medical costs of treating the girl.  The family was going to pursue legal action and the mother had turned to the internet last week to seek help with her case. It is obvious the case is causing strong feelings to emerge in the Chinese internet community. An additional point of outrage is the dalliance of the police in preparing an injury report. Whether this is justified is not clear as it will certainly take time in the UK to complete the assessment of the prognosis in a burn victim.  What struck me though was the prominence given to this incident, in terms of column inches (two columns of around ten inches each). Contrast this with a  report in the Indian Express (16 January 2012). In just two column inches was a report of a 17 year old girl who was allegedly abducted, raped, and set on fire by four youths in the Khekhreru area of Uttar Pradesh by four youths. The girl had been admitted to hospital where her condition was critical. I read this whilst in Mumbai waiting for a plane back to Hong Kong. Of note I had been at a wonderful conference of Indian Reconstructive Microsurgeon held in Aurangabad.  My Indian friends in Hong Kong responded in a very matter of fact way when I told them of the article and said that the youths would have just been trying to destroy evidence of the rape.

I suppose in other parts of the world a knife or a bullet would do the needful but there is something particularly barbaric about setting one’s fellow human being alight. Of course that is a “Western” perspective. With some temerity, as a guest speaker in the National Academy of Burn of India Conference in Dehli last month I raised the issue of bride burning. This is a very sensitive issue and the responses of the Indian burns surgeons were fascinating; the senior male surgeons are in denial; it doesn’t happen: the middle generation acknowledge it happens but shrug their shoulders; it is part of the culture: the younger surgeons are embarrassed. And the female burns surgeons are angry that it occurs, despite the laws, despite the publicity.

The young girl in China was set on fire because she rejected a suiters advances. Far more common in such an event would be an acid assault. This is a global phenomenon. Bride burning in India is more complex and is often related to dowry issues or lack of male offspring.

Another aspect of burning women that needs to be mentioned is that this is not always an act of male violence. Indeed in India it is often the mother-in-law who instigates if not perpetrates the crime. And it is a crime. I say this as the undue emphasis of violence against women and children can leave men in an awkward and rather defensive position. Indeed, again in India there is a male driven website for the Save India Families Foundation. All advocates of gender equality should look at this website.

But back to burning; any human being, male or female who deliberately sets another human being on fire needs to be treated as a cruel and callous criminal irrespective of culture, irrespective of creed and irrespective of gender. Burning women is not a male crime, it is a human crime.

Andrew Burd is professor of plastic, reconstructive, and aesthetic surgery at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His major clinical interests involve paediatric burns care and the role of plastic surgery in the palliation of advanced malignancy. Academic interests include pragmatic ethics related to the practice of medicine including research and publication.

  • S. T.

    Isn't just remarkable how humans too absorbed in maintaining their own ego-centric view of the world can just seem to forget human empathy in favor of crimes that “benefit”? I never imagined bride-burning to be humanely possible before now (then again, I forget that not all marriages are made out of love). This article opened my eyes. Thank you. I guess human desensitivity can be taught in a culture than empathy, doesn't make it right. On a side note, have you ever read “Enduring Creation” by Nigel Spivey? Goes more into how pity is something that is learned to be felt.

  • Eemann

    Thank you Prof Burd for taking time from your schedule to document a phenomenon all too common throughout the non-Western world. When your Indian colleagues were characteristically unmoved, I hasten to add that while ensconced in Western society the same colleagues will feign concern, or even outrage, as they gauge such responses as required by the host Judaeo-Christian civilization. Yet, of course, historically there has been no effort, nor probably will there be, in these non-Western societies to eradicate the brutally coarse inhumanity such practices toward defenseless women highlight.    

  • Andrew

     S.T. many thanks for your comment. I have not read “Enduring Creation” but looked it up on the University of California Press website. It looks like one of those books that you need to be in a very strong and positive mood to read. How to find that place in one's mind, spirit, soul is one of the daily challenges we all face. I do feel strangely optimistic though when we look at the barbaric behavior that was so prevalent not so long ago. I think the world is, inch by inch, millimeter by millimeter, minute by minute dragging itself into a better place.

  • Andrew

     Eamann, on a positive note it does seem that Sati is a thing of the past and so I do see hope.  But this will come more from changes in culture than a change in law. And the main drive for  changes in culture will be education and improvement in economic status.

  • Andrew-
    On an historical note, similar problems were noted i the late 19th century by an Irish sureon serving in the Indian Medical Service. See 
    J Plast Reconstr Aesthet Surg. 2012 Mar 13. [Epub ahead of print]Denis F. Keegan: Forgotten pioneer of plastic surgery.