She thought social work meant living a life where you were content with the fact that you were doing whatever you could to help others. She got this idea by seeing her father’s foreigner friend who used to visit Nepal exclusively to volunteer and help people in need. That was largely why she took up social work for her bachelors’ degree in college. Little did she know that she would end up working for a cause where no matter how much she did, it would never feel enough.
“I got the idea that helping others was important early on in life but I never realized that the people you ‘helped’ would end up becoming an inseparable part of your life,” says Rumi Rajbhandari, who worked as project coordinator at an organization that worked for burn survivors, and has now started her own organization, Astitwa, to aid burn survivors. After eight years in the field, and having gained enough goodwill through her work, Rajbhandari now feels comfortable and confident enough to pursue this cause on her own, minus the bureaucratic red tape.
However, Rajbhandari mentions that initially working with burn survivors was really difficult for her. “I couldn’t believe women were being set on fire by their husbands and in laws. It was something I had only seen on television. Also, almost my whole family is involved in the medical field and I wanted to distance myself from that side. But this work compelled me to visit hospitals and interact with patients all the time,” says Rajbhandari.
Another thing Rajbhandari struggled with quite a lot during her first few days was the sight and smell of burnt flesh. She confesses that talking to survivors who had terrible burn wounds would almost always bring tears in her eyes. The pain they must have been in was something she couldn’t fathom and the smell of putrid flesh would be so overpowering that it wouldn’t leave her senses for days.
“But I quickly learnt that I would have to pull myself together and act positive and smile when I was dealing with a burn survivor. I couldn’t make them lose hope by falling apart myself,” she says adding that it’s really hard to maintain composure especially when sometimes some victims with over 90% burns on their bodies hold your hands and tell you they don’t want to die.
“It’s very hard to smile at them and promise that they will live through the ordeal because you know that someone who is burnt to that degree has zero chance of survival. But I can’t break down in front of that person and blurt out what I know and these circumstances are very heavy to live through,” says Rajbhandari.
Till date, Rajbhandari claims that a majority of burn violence cases she has come across are ones where a married woman is the victim of violence either by husband, in laws or her own family. She says that a common thread that ties all these cases together is the fact that burn violence crimes are often hidden domestic violence and abuse cases and almost always these victims and survivors lie about the cause of their burns because they know they will be shunned by their families and society if they tell the truth.
Apparently, mostly the survivors claim their burns are a result of an accident rather than intentional because that rules out intense investigation and the involvement of the police. But Rajbhandari says that people working with these cases can distinguish accidental burns from intentional ones almost immediately. And as painful as it is for her to not step in and contest what the victims are saying, she says that she understands the fear going through the their minds and holds herself back.
It used to take anywhere from a few days to many months for the survivors to reveal what actually happened, and that too just to Rajbhandari. She says that she would consistently be in touch with the survivors and build an intimate connection with them before they became ready to divulge the truth. She says, “Although I strongly suggest they file a case against whoever is responsible and promise to help them throughout (and after) the whole process, not everyone leans into this option and we can’t force them to file a complaint.”
Also, filing a complaint isn’t easy when you have initially given a statement saying it was all an accident. And since our laws aren’t simple regarding burn violence, the women often face a lot of challenges. Rajbhandari claims that there is a lot that need to be done by the government to tackle the root cause of burn violence.
Over a year and half ago, Rajbhandari left the organization she was working for as she was pregnant and couldn’t handle the stress. But she soon realized that the connection she had built with burn survivors was not something she could break away from so easily. She started helping young burn survivors to go back to school and she was still in touch with the survivors she met through her former workplace. That was how she slowly started helping burn survivors however she could and her friends and family invested in the cause as well.
But some of these investors and sponsors persuaded her to register an organization for this and work under its banner because they needed official bills for their financial contributions. Coincidently, around the same time, she met up with some of her former colleagues and now the Astitwa team is complete with counselors and other employees who have been working with burn survivors for quite some time.
“If there is one thing I want people to take away from my story it’s that they have to treat burn survivors like any other person. Their scars do not define them and they are just as capable as you and I. What adds to a burn violence survivors’ pain is how the society completely shuns them. We should all work together to change that,” concludes Rajbhandari.