Burned Alive: the Story of Reshma

IMG_4242By: Lindsey Cawood

Be sure to check out the “Did You Know…?” column at the end for more information on bolded words!

Reshma Ganesh Pawar was 26 years old when she was burned alive (1). Now four years later, she cries as she retells the horrific story of the day that changed her life.

Reshma was 15 when she and her younger sister, Durga, were married to the family of a distant relative. Reshma’s husband was named Ganesh; his brother, Mahesh, became Durga’s husband. The two sisters moved to join their husbands’ family in the Indiranagar slum, where they lived with the men’s mother, Ashabai, and father, Dashrath.

Reshma’s early years of marriage were happy ones. Reshma recalls that she and Ganesh enjoyed spending time together and often took motorcycle rides through Jamkhed. Reshma also had a fruitful marriage, as she bore three children: one daughter, Priti, and two sons, Yogesh and Siddhu.

Reshma and Ganesh survived in the slums by earning meager salaries making bricks. While Reshma spent her earnings on the home and children, her husband increasingly spent his on gambling and liquor. Household tension built as Reshma began to confront Ganesh about his spending habits and ask for increased funds for home expenses. Ganesh responded to these pleas with verbal and physical abuse (2). Ashabai, Ganesh’s mother, became increasingly involved in these fights, berating and insulting Reshma whenever the opportunity arose.

The situation worsened as Ganesh’s family suspected Reshma was having an affair. Reshma rebuffed their accusations, repeatedly daring her family to name the man with whom she was supposedly committing adultery, but they could not. Her in-laws began to question her whenever she left the house. When Reshma retrieved well water, they claimed she was visiting this suitor. When she was spotted speaking to a man, they claimed she was a woman of poor character. Ashabai became especially cruel, preventing Reshma from visiting her children and denying her food.

Reshma’s in-laws, especially Ashabai, wanted Ganesh to remarry. In a traditional village where divorce is taboo, Reshma was an expendable problem. One day in Reshma’s eleventh year of marriage, a particularly bad fight broke out between Reshma, Ganesh, and Ashabai. While Reshma had her back turned, Ashabai doused her in gasoline and lit a match.

Click here to see a video of Reshma after her attack. Please note, the video is extremely graphic and shows partial nudity as well as severe skin charring. (Story continued below)

Reshma does not remember the events that immediately followed. Three days after Christmas in 2010, she was transferred from a government-run facility to CRHP’s Julia Hospital. Reshma was admitted to the ICU with severe burns covering 68% of her body. She suffered from frequent vomiting and constant burning sensations, required catheterization, and had chest burns so deep she experienced difficulty breathing. Reshma also required multiple blood transfusions and a mosquito net to protect her wounds from insects. Her skin was so traumatized that she was initially forced to recover without the comfort of clothing. She had blisters on her right hand and thigh, while the skin on her neck, back, and chest was completely charred. Dr. Raj Arole, the founder of CRHP, told her not to worry. “I will take care of everything,” he said. “We will save you.”

Over the next year, Reshma endured excruciating pain and intensive rehabilitation. The burns had not only left her scarred and disfigured, but unable to perform basic movements. As Reshma’s skin healed, it had tightly contracted, preventing her from raising her arms or turning her head and requiring multiple surgeries. Reshma underwent several skin grafts as well as procedures to separate the skin on her neck from her chest.

Over the following months, agony, frustration, and anger became Reshma’s constant companions as she began to suffer from depression. One day, hospital staff noticed Reshma was feeling particularly distraught. A nurse named Shahabai secretly followed Reshma as she walked through the hospital and onto the roof. Shahabai stopped Reshma before she was able to take her life.

As time went on, Reshma slowly regained physical abilities. Friends and family would visit her. Doctors and CRHP staff would spend time with her. Everyone accepted Reshma and showered her with compassion and enthusiasm. She bonded with her physical therapist and the hospital orderlies, and felt appreciated, as even the directors of CRHP were never far from her side. Reshma beams with pride as she recalls that in 2011, the CRHP directors granted her the honor of hoisting the campus flag on the Independence Day of India. Such flags are normally raised by politicians, judges, chiefs of police, or other high-ranking officials.

For all that she has been through, Reshma will never see justice (3) for the atrocity committed against her. In India, whenever an individual has been burned as such, a police report is automatically filed. However, Reshma, as thousands of other Indian burn victims do each year, lied about the attack and told police she had set herself ablaze. Although Ashabai had tried to kill her, Reshma still had her children to worry about. Priti, Yogesh, and Siddhu still lived with her extended family and could be subjected to retaliation should Reshma press charges against Ashabai. Reshma also had to consider that if Ashabai were incarcerated, no one would be left to take care of her children, as traditionally, Indian men do not take responsibility for child rearing.

Over the past four years as a resident of Julia Hospital, Reshma has made considerable progress. She is now able to move her hands up to her shoulders and perform light weightlifting exercises, although she still has restricted mobility. Reshma is unable to move her neck, and keeps her head tucked tightly against her chest.

Now, Reshma is a happy and vivacious woman. Every week, she visits her mother’s house, where she is able to see her children. She spends her days coloring, doing karate and physical therapy exercises, helping nurses make cotton balls, changing dressings, and chatting with other patients. She especially likes to counsel others suffering from pain and depression. “It helps both of us recover,” she says. “We gain strength and courage by speaking to each other.”

Although her emotional recovery has begun, it is far from finished. Reshma prays for the strength to forgive Ashabai, but has not yet found this peace. “I am not a god,” she says. “I am a human being. But I will forgive [her], I just don’t know when. It will be a gift from god. It will help me as well.”

Reshma also has a positive outlook for the future of India’s women. “I see a strong India in the future. I see strong girls. I see a community with gender equity. I have courage now. Whatever strength I have, I want to see that strength everywhere. I see that same strength in India’s future, especially in its girls.”

Did you Know…?
1. Burned Alive- In 2012, over 8,000 Indian brides were burned alive, amounting to one about every hour. Although not the reason for Reshma’s attack, bride burning is often the result of dowry conflicts. http://ncrb.nic.in/

2. Verbal and Physical Abuse- The patriarchal system is deeply embedded in traditional Indian culture. Indian women typically participate in little decision making, do not own land, and nearly 2/3 are subjected to violence. http://www.in.undp.org/content/dam/india/docs/poverty/national-consultation-report–post-2015-development-agenda.pdf

3. Never See Justice- Aside from worry about their children, many Indian women may choose not to report a crime due to a lack of trust in the court system. As of 2012, the largest democracy in the world had 30 million pending cases to be decided by a mere 16,000 judges. Low conviction rates (34% of bride burning cases is 2010) and widespread corruption also inspire little confidence in the judicial system and contributes to the number of unreported crimes. These crimes are also more frequently unreported in areas of lower literacy.
http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Dowry-death-One-bride-burnt-every-hour/articleshow/11644691.cms
http://supremecourtofindia.nic.in/ncms27092012.pdf

FUN LINKS! 

1. Donate to CRHP! Please be sure to write “Unheard Voices” in the notes section. http://jamkhed.org/get_involved/donate/donate

2. See more photos of Reshma! https://www.flickr.com/photos/jamkhed/sets/72157644714099734/

3. Write to Reshma! If you have comments or questions for Reshma, you can write her at info@jamkhed.org or CRHP, c/o Reshma Pawar, Jamkhed, Dist. Ahmednagar, Maharashtra 413 201, India.

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