Whilst 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.