Agni Raksha A nonprofit for burn victims from poor families

1. What does Agni Raksha do?

Agni Raksha is a not-for-profit organisation which works for protection of burn survivors especially women and children from economically backward communities. The organisation was started in 1999 and became a legal entity in 2002.

Prevention: we conduct awareness programmes on how to protect oneself from incidents of burn.

Rehabilitation & Medical intervention: Provide medical assistance by way of dressing their wounds both at the organisation and during home visits, support in the process of surgeries, follow-up post-surgery through physiotherapy and post of care at Safe Haven, a place wherein patients could stay for a couple of months until fit to get back to normal life. Meanwhile, patients are given nutritional food, counselling, physical activities, skill based activities, meditation, regular dressing of their wounds etc. OPDs are conducted twice a month which provides opportunity for out-patients to visit the organisation and avail services such as consultations from medical professionals.

Re-integration Programme:The NPO works on networking with various stakeholders for seeking support from the Rights Commissions, various departments, and other civil society organisations. Providing legal remedies and advocating for compensation from various sectors. Provide educational material support, skill-based training, income-generating programmes, re-instating children in school etc.

2. What made you start this NGO?

Agni Raksha is the baby born out of a painful experience that the founder Dr.Prema Dhanraj (my older sister) of the organisation went through surviving a burn incident as a child. Even though as a family we were economically, socially well settled yet nothing much could be done in removing the agony my sister was going through every step of her life. A number of surgeries she had to go through, anguish as a child that she was unable to go out and lead a normal life like other children, or enjoy her childhood. It is not only my sister but the whole family who went through the painful path. But a day came when she was recognised for her work and today she stands tall as a renowned plastic surgeon.

As a family we had witnessed the gruesome phase my sister and the whole family that went through and a thought about how people from economically and socially backward communities will be able to handle such a situation. This thought has become a reality today and we have been able to extend services to over a hundred thousand people in a year.

3. Any stories in Agni Raksha you could elaborate on?

We have had children as young as 3 months and adults as old as 85 visiting us with burn injuries. Though many cooperate with the dressing procedures of their wounds and  take a positive step in attending the rehabilitation programmes, a few because of negligence and lack of resistance to pain do not come for follow-up which further damages their state of being both physically and psychologically. Yes, we understand the whole procedure is physically very painful but it is important to accept it for better life.

Today we have over 20 members as regular staff after being rehabilitated and undergoing skill based training. A few of the committed team members are Ms.Vennila who is today the coordinator of the programmes, Ms.Usha leading the nursing team, Ms.Manjula  looking after the tailoring unit etc. They have grown as professionals over a period of 10 years now. They have gained leadership capabilities and are most reliable.

Vennila Mani

It took her all of 8 long years to get to the point where she didn’t have to wait until dark or to cover her disfigured face ……..

Vennila, meaning The White Moon, is one of four children born to Lakshman Mani and Murugamma. She studied well and also helped her mother in domestic chores in the slum where their family lived.Surprisingly she failed in Class X examinations and so attempted suicide.

Rev Paul Jebaraj who was conducting a prayer meeting next door to Vennila’s house came to investigate on hearing the girl’s piteous cries of agony and offered hope in the hopeless situation.

On May 27th she had suffered 50% burns (3rd degree).The hospital staff asked that Vennila be taken home as she wasn’t going to survive anyway. They neglected her — her burns weren’t addressed, health and hygiene totally left out, because she was going to die! They wanted to wash their hands off Vennila. So, she was brought home in a miserable state. To worsen matters, a fortune teller predicted that she will die soon. But God in His mercy brought her back from the jaws of death into His marvellous light.

Shortly afterwards the entire family accepted Jesus as their Lord and Vennila was on the road to recovery. Two years later in 2007 she joined as a counsellor in Agni Raksha.

Her uncle drank poison after consumption of alcohol. He was at death’s door. But with the faith that could move mountains she asked God to answer her prayer and He did. Her uncle survived against all odds. Wherever she went –schools, colleges, to Asha workers, nurses, Panchayat Members, Taluk Panchayat Members –she felt the grace of God following her and guiding her to deal with people sensibly.

She spoke at a meeting where 600 Headmistresses were present. One of them got back to her and told her how proud she was of Vennila.

Dr Prema performed a major second surgery on her in 2011.

4. Could you tell us something about your own personal struggles as a woman and how you fought through them?

Life is an ongoing process of struggles. Looking back, they can be distinguished as stepping stones to the development of my personality. It all commenced with the strong belief in myself. I can elaborate on examples where I have risen to the occasion quite oblivious and unaware of the innate strength our Lord endowed me with.

Growing up, looking different wasn’t easy. I had to struggle against mental, physical and emotional situations.

Right through my childhood, it really wasn’t of any consequence as most of us live sheltered well-insulated lives. But as I blossomed into womanhood, where I had to face the world at large, then the realization set in. The fact that my parents had provided the strong and stable upbringing is what gave me the confidence to believe in me.

My major setback was before I got into my Masters. Being the sole female in a male-dominated subject, every moment was a test in itself! Every moment I had to prove that I was equal to the task laid before me. There was always that sneering look from classmates which actually challenged me towards overcoming difficulties. It had to be dealt with on a regular basis.

During my super speciality training I was ‘pitted’ against 8 candidates and that too paid because of my God’s blessings, hard work, and relentless focus on the goal helped me forge ahead.

At work, due to the well-planned and organized nature which became a part of my existence, errors were negligible. I survived because the fire within me burned as a leading/guiding light and instead of consuming me, burned brighter.

I just loved my work and due to the passion I had for patients and students , they  preferred me over other doctors . You don’t know what you can achieve until you try it!I overcame every obstacle I faced and have proved to the world that struggles make us strong and content. Beauty is an asset which is great! But you really don’t need it to follow your dreams.

Being the centre of a family and home, it’s in the woman’s hand to shape society. When you move your focus from competition to contribution, Life becomes a celebration.

5. What would your advice be to the other Indian woman out there?

  1. Believe in yourself
  2. Love yourself for what you are
  3. Don’t underestimate your potential and your worth
  4. Tap into your talents and shine in life

Every human being’s experience is unique. Being a woman makes it even more so as she has to balance home,work and family. What I have experienced, my reactions to various situations, and my learning curve are my very own. In like manner each woman will have to adapt to her exclusive role in society.

Never forget that as women, we tend to help each other and develop on that advice. Each of us is capable and able to tap the resources within us.

In all strata of society, I have sadly observed that women aren’t respected. Unfortunately that hasn’t changed globally. We surely need to value ourselves and know our worth.

There are moments of despair and frustration when people walk all over us but this should not make us give up on ourselves. That is the moment to gather courage and with dignity, rise above it.

Once we know our worth, there is absolutely no need to look back. Each event in our lives will be a step towards a better and stronger self. If one surely and steadily starts believing in one, tomorrow will have an easier path to follow. Never underestimate the future, it may be tougher but by then you would have learnt how to cope.

I understand women are treated as second gender and  suppressed and oppressed at all stages of life which begins at her home. I feel it is important to teach our girl children that they are also living beings who should be treated with respect and that  have every right to lead a dignified life. We do not teach our children, especially girls, to say a proper NO. I think it starts from there. Since there is always a pressure to say YES even if they are not prepared it goes a long way in “adjusting to circumstances” for every reason and situation. It always gives a wrong message to the men that it is ok to tamper with her rights and life as men believe that women are their property and not fellow-beings. Our duty is to nurture and guide women so that they become independent and are able to take their decision of their life than always seeking support from the men folk to help them. I strongly feel women should have the knowledge of the laws in this country so that she is able to protect herself. That’s one  reason why we have initiated legal awareness programmes so that women are able to understand that they have all rights and when it is at stake they can approach for remedy. Many of the cases we have handled have shown that girl children are not encouraged in education. It is important that girls educate themselves and build their skills and keep themselves updated with the latest knowledge so that they are able to become the ruler of their life.

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