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Indian Journal of Community Medicine

Burnt Wives: An Epidemiological Review

Author(s): Virendra Kumar

Vol. 27, No. 1 (2002-01 - 2002-03)

Deptt. of Forensic Medicine, KMC, Manipal, 576119 (Karnataka)

Introduction:

The incidence of burnt wives, whether suicidal, homicidal or accidental, has become endemic in Indian society. The reasons for this endemic are manifold like dowry deaths, marital infidelity, sexual jealousy, oedipal dominance of mother in-law over the grooms etc. Hence the study of such cases epidemiologically is of paramount importance to throw light on the exact nature of the incidents. In epidemiological study, the three factors-namely host, agent and environment are dealt. In the present review the burnt wives may be taken as the host, the source of fire as the agent and the surroundings where the burnings occurred i.e. the place of burning incident as the environment in the epidemiological terms.

Religion and Caste:

Dasgupta and Tripathi 1 reported that out of 87 burnt married females autopsied, 95.4% belonged to Hindu religion. Only 3.45% were Muslims and 1.14% came from Sikh community.

Kumar et al 2 , while studying 152 cases of burnt wives at autopsy observed 92.76% cases in Hindus, 6.57% in Muslims and merely 0.65% cases amongst Christians.

Suxena 3 reported that an overwhelming majority of dowry death victims were Brahmins (60%) followed by Vaishya community (20%) and Kayastha (20%). In his study, not a single death was reported either in inter-caste or inter-community marriage.

Usha Rai 4 in her study of 150 victims of dowry related crimes in Delhi reported that 68% were Hindus, 17% were Muslims and 15% were Sikhs. The harassment was greater among Rajputs, Brahmins and Khatris and in that order, scheduled castes were only 5.9%.

TDevdas 5 observed (though Government does not categorize its statistics by religion) that the problem obviously spread from Hindus and Sikhs to other groups. A young Christian housewife was burnt in Lucknow in 1987 and others of this community had met the same fate in Bangalore earlier. This southern city had also shown the fiery death of a Muslim bride while others died in Kerala.

Age:

Agrawal and Agrawal 6 reported 84 cases of burns in females of which 60 (73.43%) were in the age group of 15-30 years.

Thomsen et al 7 in their study reported total 196 burn accidents with fire in females, of which 115 cases were between 16-59 years of age and 35 above 60 years and rest were below 16 years of age.

Agha and Benhamla 8 reported in their study of epidemiology of burns in Algiers that there were nearly twice as many females as males (65%: 35%) and female preponderance was very marked in 16-40 years age group.

Sen and Banerjee 9 analyzed 1000 cases of burns in SSKM hospital, Calcutta and reported that 688 cases were between the age 11-50 years, 274 were children below 10 years and remaining 38 were above 50 years of age. Amongst adults (i.e. above 11 years) there were 368 females who had burns.

Dasgupta and Tripathi 1 reported in their study of burnt wife syndrome that 85% cases of burnt wives were between the age of 16-30 years and the rest 15% were beyond the age of 30 years.

Kumar et al 2 reported from their study that 89.47% burnt wives were within 35 years of age.

Sakhare 10 had analyzed 1200 suspicious deaths of married females and all were below 30 years.

Suxena 3 observed in his study of bride burning that there were 60% cases between the age of 18-20 years and 30% in the age of 20-25 years. Only 10% of the victims above the age of 25 years were murdered or driven to commit suicide because they had not brought enough dowries.

Salesh et al 11 while studying accidental burn deaths in Egyptian women of reproductive age (15-49 years) reported that there were 1,691 deaths from all causes during the 3 years of study (1981-83) and 152 of these cases were due to burns (9%) and these burn deaths formed third leading cause of death after diseases of the circulatory system and complications of pregnancy and child birth.

Ahuja 12 found that most of the female victims of any violence were in the age group of 20-30 years. Almost all girls who were killed on dowry issue belonged to the age group 21-24 years in which they can be considered as mature not only physically and mentally but socially and emotionally too.

Rai 4 quoted in her study that about 381 married women between the age of 16-30 years with third degree burns were admitted in one of the hospitals of Delhi in the year 1985 alone.

Dalbir Singh et al 13 in their study of burns at autopsy reported that most burn deaths occurred in the age group of 21-40 years (67%), with female preponderance (61%) in all age groups except in the extreme age groups.

Kamran Soltani et al 14 observed the highest incidence of burns in the age group of 16-25 years.

Literacy:

Although the literacy rate in India has improved over the decades, the difference between male and female literacy persists and the females are lagging behind (Park) 15.

Dasgupta and Tripathi 1 reported that 59% of burnt wives were illiterate, 23% received only primary education and 16% were educated upto secondary standard and only 2% of the victims were graduates.

Kumar et al 2 in their study of burnt married females reported the educational background of the victims as illiterate 53.28%, primary 21.71%, and Junior high and high school 25%.

Sakhare 10 in her analysis showed that the major portion of the married burnt females were illiterate or poorly literate. She also found that 76 graduate and postgraduate degree holders were also in this fray.

Suxena 3 had analyzed the dowry death victims and reported that most of the victims were educated upto junior high school and primary, to the extent of 40%. The rest of the victims fell equally (i.e. 30%) in the levels of higher secondary, graduation and post graduation.

Rai 4 reported that 91% of the dowry death victims were educated and amongst them 30% were graduates and postgraduates. According to her, 20% of the young women were working and contributing to the family income but could not escape dowry victimization.

Ahuja 12 in his study of violence against women found that though illiterate wives were more vulnerable to husband beating than the educated wives, there was no significant relationship between beating and the educational status of the victims. Kamran Soltani et al 14 while studying epidemiology the mortality of burns in Tehran, Iran, reported highest rate of burns amongst illiterate people.

Community character:

Dasgupta and Tripathi1 reported that nearly equal number of victims were from rural and urban areas. In their study 54% cases were from rural areas and 46% case were from urban areas.

TAccording to Sakhare 10 , most of the deaths were from villages (54%) and only 25% and 21% deaths were from urban areas and city areas respectively.

TKumar et al 2 reported 73.02% burnt wives from rural population, 21.71% amongst urban community and 5.26% from city areas.

Socio-economic status:

akhare 10 in her study showed that almost all victims were economically dependent on husband or in-laws (91%) and only few were economically sufficient.

Suxena 3 reported that the dowry deaths in lower middle class were to the extent of 40% while in middle and lower groups were 30% each.

Rai 4 from her analysis of 150 victims reported that in the higher income group the women were deserted or harassed, whereas, in the middle-income group they were often killed.

Tahuja 12 observed that middle class women had a higher rate of victimization than lower or upper class women.

Percentage of body area burnt:

Maya Natu et al 16 studied that 15-50% of body surface was burnt in 40.15% female victims and 50% or more in 35.9% of female victims and less than 15% of burns in 22.98% of female victims, whereas, in 0.97% cases burnt areas were not recorded.

Dasgupta and Tripathi 1 found that 50-100% of the body area was burnt in majority of the victims (92%) which indicated that no help was rendered in time while in rest 8% the total body area burnt was less than 50%.

Kumar et al 17 reported that in 85.52% burnt wives more than 50% of body area was burnt while in 14.47% victims it was less than 50%.

Agent-source of fire:

According to Kumar et al 18 the largest number of burn incidents in married women were due to kerosene stoves-30.92% followed by wood cooking chulha 25.65%, match sticks 21.71%, kerosene lamps 15.31% and others 6.57%.

Moyer 19 , while studying 166 patients of thermal injuries, cited that about a third of cases resulted from the direct contact of clothing with an open flame.

Bull 20 studied 615 patients, admitted to Birmingham Accident Hospital in England in 10 years period and observed that all were caused by ignited clothing.

Foerster and Richardson 21 in their study of burn patients hospitalized at Oklahoma State University Hospital, observed that stoves were responsible for the injuries in 69 cases, ignition of inflammable material in 43, open fire in 49, scalding liquids in 33 and miscellaneous factors in 29 cases.

Maya Natu et al 16 in their study of burn cases observed that the accidents of cloths getting ignited from a naked flame (mainly of primus stove), occurred when the utensils were lifted from the stove with the help of end of the sari worn by the victims themselves. Out of 409 cases of married female burn victims, it was observed that the pressure stove was the source of fire in about 129 cases, fire wood, gas or petrol in 78 cases, kerosene lamp in 61 cases, match sticks in 3 cases and in rest of the victims some other factors were responsible. Nearly in all cases (male as well as female) cotton fabric, as commonly used by the people, was responsible for catching the fire.

Jha 22 reported that the women who cooked on the floor using fire wood, coal stoves or kerosene stoves either inside their houses or outside on verandah were mainly the burn victims in domestic accidents.

Singh et al 23 observed that most of the suicidal burns were performed by soaking the clothing and the body with some inflammable substances, usually kerosene oil and then setting it alight with a match stick.

Scully and Hutcherson 24 analyzed 15 cases of attempted suicidal burn patients, of which 5 died. Out of these five, four used inflammable liquids to ignite themselves and the other ignited the furniture in the apartment after leaving a suicide note.

Dasgupta and Tripathi 1 in their study found that largest number of burn deaths were due to match-stick flame (35.6%) followed by cooking with wood (28.7%), stoves (18.39%), angithi/coke oven (11.49%) and kerosene lamps (5.75%).

Parikh 25 observed that clothes catching fire were frequent in deaths from burns especially in young children and Indian women who put on sari.

Copeland 26,27 while studying 26 homicidal fire deaths, reported the use of inflammable liquid and then igniting it as the cause of burns in 17 deaths.

In another series of his study in the same year he observed that pouring a flammable liquid on oneself and then igniting it was the cause of burns in 20 cases of suicidal deaths.

According to Dalbir Singh et al 13 in majority of the deaths due to burns, kerosene oil was the most common agent (76%).

Reig et al 28 in their study of burns reported that fire was the most (75%) common cause of burns.

Environment-Surroundings of the incident:

Kumar et al 18 reported from their study at autopsy that the largest number of victims 45.39% sustained burns in the kitchen followed by in the living room 17.76% and kitchen-cum-living room 14.47% and 17.1% victims sustained burns in the open space.

Iskrant and Joliet 29 in their studies reported that 35% of the burns occurred at home and 57% at work during employment.

Nasilowski and Zietkiewicz 30 evaluated 1,000 cases of burns and reported equal number at home and at work.

Chandler and Baldwin 31 reported in their study of some fire statistics that two third of the fire deaths in houses were found in a room in which the fire started.

Arora and Antia 32 in their study of treatment of burns in 225 cases found home accidents in 131 patients while 94 sustained burn injuries at their places of work.

Thomsen et al 7 studied 1,228 female burns in Scandinavian population (a repeated estimate) and reported that 762 cases of female burns (16-59 years) occurred at home, 212 at work, 16 elsewhere and in 238 cases the place was not known.

Pegg et al 33 while studying the accidental burn injuries in 411 patients showed that in patients having burns less than 20% (75% of the cases), 59.8% resulted from domestic or recreational accidents, 31.3% were industrial burns and the remaining 8.9% resulted from motor vehicle accidents.

Agha and Benhamla 8 in a survey of 822 burn patients in Algiers reported that the high incidence of domestic burns was related to the change in the socio-economic conditions, notably over population and great increase in gas household applicances and heaters, which were often used incorrectly.

Sen and Banerjee 9 in their study of 1,000 burn victims, observed 368 female burn injuries, amongst which 292 cases were due to domestic accidents, 4 cases were due to industrial accidents while 72 cases were suicidal in nature.

Muhtaseb et al 34 while studying the burn injuries in Jordon reported that 80% of accidents occurred at home while those sustained at work constituted only 11% and rest were elsewhere.

Robinson 35 observed from his study of burns that many severe burns occurred in the kitchen and often resulted from the ignition of loose clothing, particularly sari in Asian community.

Darko et al 36 analyzed the location of the burn victims at the time of burn injury and reported that the home was the most common place for burns followed by place of work.

Lyngdorf 37 while studying the epidemiology of severe burn injuries reported that the great majority of burns in all age groups occurred in domestic premises (71%). Only two accidental burns occurred in bathroom and one in road traffic.

Mabogynje and Lawrie 38 in their study on burns in adults in Nigeria reported that 95% of the burn incidents among women occurred in home environment.

Keswani 39 reported that in India, 80% of burn injuries occurred at home especially in the kitchen.

Reig et al 28 while studying the epidemiology and mortality of massive burns reported that most (67.3%) burn accidents occurred at home.

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