Several children are abused by being subjected to burns. Realistic statistics will never be available for various reasons. However, doctors, particularly burn surgeons, are aware of the strange cause. Since the WHO has redefined the paediatric age as 0-18, the type of abuse varies. Hot water scalds are common in infants and children up to 5 years. Between the ages of 5 and 12, they suffer punishments by way of exposure to hot objects. Between 12 and 18, the abuses with corrosive chemicals are increasing.
One day, a man brought his one-and-half-a-year old female child, Nalini (not the original name), with deep burns at the feet. They looked red like a pomegranate. The mother also came in but the couple never mentioned the cause of the burn. To my utter shock, they said it was due to fire-walking. I asked whether the child walked by herself or whether they carried her? The first answer was ‘we carried her’. But to my surprise there was no other area of burn on Nalini. If a one-and-half-a-year-old walks on hot coals she would have toppled and sustained burns all over. When I persisted, the parents revealed that the child was made to walk even as they were holding its hands. They themselves did not step into the trough with hot cinder. How cruel!
It took four months to treat the child with skin grafting. There was another revelation — Nalini used to get fits, and they thought that the condition could not be cured. Maybe, she was a problem child.
Equally cruel are other forms of abuse such as forcing children to touch hot iron or sit on a hot plate. Causing burns with cigarette butts and corrosive acids is not unknown. What was crueller, the parents of Nalini were reluctant to take the child back. As I gifted the kid padded footwear, the mother looked at me in disgust. Obviously, the child was not wanted.
In olden days, most firewalkers had neural leprosy and they did not feel the heat due to their anaesthetic feet. Religious ritual is a matter of faith. If we cannot totally dissuade people from firewalking, we must at least be able to prevent young children, including toddlers like Nalini, from being made to walk on hot coals.
Abuse by any form is punishable, but the law is not well-defined. Many a time the perpetrator cannot be identified at all in scalds, flame burns or acid attack.
(The writer is chief of plastic surgery and burns, Childs Trust Medical Research Foundation and Kanchi Kamakoti Childs Trust Hospital, Chennai. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)