by Afsana Rashid Bhat
(HN, December 30, 2010) Facing the brunt of a two-decade-long armed conflict, most women in Kashmir are caught between the devil and the deep sea. Their roles are shifting abruptly from a home maker to a breadwinner and has rendered them physically crippled, emotionally bruised and economically disturbed.
Kashmir being a major stumbling block in relations between India and Pakistan has so far involved two declared and two undeclared wars. When armed conflict started here in 1989, many people began disappearing on both sides.
Some victims were arrested by Indian armed forces and police for alleged involvement in militant activities. The families of those arrested believe that the victims are often killed after being tortured in custody, but many still hold onto the hope that they will see their dear ones again. There is no report that can prove that any missing persons taken by the government have ever returned.
Some people have been subjected to disappearance by militants on the pretext that the victims were working as informers for Indian forces. Families are generally reluctant to identify kidnappers, preferring to say that their loved ones had disappeared by “unidentified gunmen.” They don’t disclose who was responsible, whether Indian forces (the Central Reserve Police Force and the Border Security Force) or militant groups, for fear of retaliation against them or their families.
Women face most of the brunt of the entire situation. They are the worst sufferers on various counts.
Psychologically, they’ve been traumatized by the death of few women who were expecting babies due to the lack of ante-natal care in initial years of the militancy, as reported by Dr. Abdul Rashid Malik, former Deputy Director Health Services-Kashmir, and this fact sends shivers down the spine.
“In the early 1990’s, a few deaths of expectant mothers were reported for want of ante-natal check-up as they couldn’t make it to the hospital due to cross-firing and search operations. The situation became grim particularly during Jag Mohan’s state governor’s reign. George Fernandes, the then Kashmir affairs in-charge Government of India, was apprised of the same information by senior health officers”, says Dr.Malik.
The former Deputy Director says that people, especially women, were on the look out for psychiatrists. “Since psychiatrists were not available in requisite numbers, they had to look for alternatives that lead to suicidal tendencies among them. Young widows and half-widows who, had to feed their children single-handedly faced the worst of it”.
Most of the women who have been directly affected by conflict, says Dr. Hameedullah, Shah, renowned psychiatrist suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which often leads to depression.
“Emotionally women are more susceptible. This keeps them under stress. Most of the time women have been apprehensive about safety of their male members,” says Dr. Shah adding “anxiety, body ache and pain, as well as an irritable attitude has been commonly observed among women, over here for these years”.
Isolation and other social problems, says Dr. Shah have been witnessed in particular among women confined within the four walls of their homes as their interaction gets affected. He said that no specific data is available to quantify their health problems.
Referring to the attitude of society towards the plight of widows and half-widows, renowned religious scholar Kaleemullah Khan says, “Ignorance, selfishness, cruelty and inhuman attitude is at its climax”.
“The Quran is categoric about widows. If she does not have kids then she inherits one-fourth of the property left by the deceased and if she has children she inherits one-eighth,” says Khan, adding “though no authentic verse deals exclusively with it, a decree based on consensus can be issued by ‘ulemas’ and ‘molvees’ (scholars and clerics), with the consideration of the intensity and immediacy of the problem and its ramifications”.
“Rehabilitating orphan (special children) is one of the basic teachings of Islam, discussed at least three dozen times in the Quran. More so when an orphan is nearest of kin, responsibility doubles”, he adds. To make such women economically self reliant, Khan suggests certain collective measures like providing them suitable professions (crèche, orphanages, home-based-industry) and encouraging their re-marry.
Dr. Khurshid-ul-Islam, a well-known sociologist, says that her attachment to her first husband and children stops her remarrying. “Facts are facts, it is children who become the motivating force for her not to re-marry - otherwise it is permitted under Islam”.
“Being more sensitive and fragile to issues, she can’t face the situation and while facing the brunt of it she gets labeled, exploited and becomes the talk of the town. Automatically, she gets distressed,” says the sociologist adding, “She is already at the back of the bench when something happens here.”
According to Dr. Khurshid, she becomes the ‘forced’ bread winner or crusader in a society like Kashmir and a forced decision-maker, wherein she normally fails. On the economic aspect he says, “The majority of them voluntarily work in fields but now it’s a forced role”, adding, “I won’t call it economic empowerment. Her heart isn’t with it”.
Psychologically, as well women have suffered immensely over the past two decades. Mental health of women has deteriorated the most, particularly direct sufferers of conflict.
According to doctors at the Government Psychiatry Diseases Hospital, women constitute 62 percent of patients visiting it, says a report published by Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (J&KCCS), a human rights group. Hundreds of women, it says, have no idea of medical counseling and continue to suffer.
According to studies, most Kashmiris suffer from PTSD and are in need of treatment. As against 1,762 patients registered during 1990, number of patients who visited hospital in 2000 went up to 38,696 and nearly 48,000 in 2002, says the report, adding “before eruption of conflict in Kashmir in 1989 hardly any case of PTSD was reported”.
According to Medecins Sans Frontiers, MSF (Doctors Without Borders), a private international medical and humanitarian organization, counseling can help to understand the problem and treatment through counseling is psychological and a process that might continue for a certain time period depending upon severity, intensity, complexity, duration of problem and likewise.
PTSD and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) are common psychiatric disorders found in an orphanage, almost exclusively in female children. Younger age, being female and lower socio-economic class are believed to be other risk factors for PTSD, says the study, “Psychiatric disorders among children living in orphanages-Experience from Kashmir.”
Psychologists believe that not only physical, cognitive, emotional and behavioural reactions occur under stressful situations but relationships get strained, accidents become common after severe stresses followed by danger of alcohol and drug abuse.
MSF believes that areas of armed conflict and mass violence generally give rise to stressful situations that can be difficult to cope up with. “Violence has touched each family here, in a way or other, which leads to detrimental effects on well-being of people”.
- Afsana Rashid Bhat is a journalist based in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir-India. Author of the book, “Waiting for justice: Widows and Half-widows”She is a recipient of the Sanjoy Ghose Humanitarian Award, Sanjoy Ghose Media fellowship (2006-07) by Charkha Communications Development Network - New Delhi, UN Population Fund-Laadli Media Award and Grass-root Innovation Augmentation Network (GIAN) – Media Awards-2007. She was also awarded a fellowship in 2005 for her work on impact of conflict on the subsistence livelihoods of marginalized communities in Kashmir by Action Aid India.