Why Indian Fires Are Deadlier for Women

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Residents search for their belongings from their burnt houses at a shanty town in New Delhi.

Fire-Related Deaths in India in 2001: A Retrospective Analysis of Data
By Prachi Sanghavi, Kavi Bhalla, Veena Das
The Lancet.com

The Gist:

Fire is one of the leading causes of death among young women in India — but you wouldn't know it by looking at government statistics. Or so says a study published in the British medical journal The Lancet. By examining census figures, death certificates from urban hospitals and "verbal autopsy" reports from rural communities, three researchers from Cambridge, Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University estimated that more than 100,000 women were killed by fires in a single year — more than six times the number reported by police. The study also found that young women were three times as likely to be killed by fires than male peers. "These deaths share common causes," the authors write, "including kitchen accidents, self-immolation, and different forms of domestic abuse." But because no national database exists to track such injuries or fatalities, the public-health risk has largely gone unnoticed. (See pictures from the deadly attacks on Sri Lankan cricketers.)

Highlight Reel:

1. On "dowry deaths": Though the Indian media has devoted substantial coverage to fire-related deaths in public areas like schools and movie theaters, far less attention has been dedicated to incidents that occur within the home, especially those known as "dowry deaths." "A dowry death is the killing of a young woman by members of her conjugal family for bringing insufficient dowry, and is commonly executed by first dousing the woman with kerosene and then setting her alight," the report notes. But too often, such murders are disguised as accidents or suicides. "It is well known," the authors write, "that police can be extremely lax in registering reports and that, in cases of suspected criminality, family members of a victim might be able to bribe police to avoid investigation."

2. On the lack of government statistics: The most recent figures from the "Medicial Certification of Cause of Death" (MCCD), India's national death registry, are from 2001, and only cover "participating urban hospitals." For rural areas, death certificates are even harder to come by. Officials must rely on the "Survey of Causes of Death" (SCD), a "verbal autopsy survey of a sample of villages across rural India." One study conducted in a rural Tamil Nadu district tracked 39,000 deaths — 16% of which were suicides committed by women using fire.

3. On determining a fire's cause: Police bribery aside, the authors note several ways that forensic and medical experts can distinguish fire-related accidents, suicides and homicides: "Autopsy reports often note kerosene smells and prior removal of jewelry, and experiments showed that flames always travel upwards through a victim's garments." Detailed interviews with survivors, kin and the neighbors of the victim can also determine the nature of the fire's cause, as well as "insights into the bottlenecks in health care, such as delays in treatment due to fears of meeting the police, traffic conditions, and inabilities to pay."

The Lowdown:

If the study's estimates are correct, more than twelve women die in fires every hour in India. But as the authors point out, fairly simple measures could be taken to prevent the accidental deaths of so many women — not to mention the thousands of children, elderly and unprotected workers who die each year in fires as well. The solution to dowry deaths and bride burnings, however, is not so simple. "Marriage patterns (especially hypergamy), economic dependence of women, and cultural norms...make state agencies, such as the police, especially hesitant to intervene effectively in cases of domestic violence," the study notes. And like fires, such pervasive attitudes can be hard to put out.

The Verdict: Read

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