The decades-old struggle for power between India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir has turned the ‘Paradise on Earth’ into the World’s most densely militarized conflict zone. Denying the Kashmiris the right to decide for their freedom as per their will gave rise to the secessionist movements in the late 80s, and a new wave of heightened violence hit the valley when India deployed 300,000 and 500,000 troops to stifle a rising population exceeding 10 million.
The Kashmiri civilians since then have suffered in silence, as murders, house-to-house raids, torturous interrogations, gang rapes, and forced disappearances became a norm. Like any war zone in the world, it is the vulnerable women of Kashmir who have borne the burden of the rising violence over the years. They have been witness to mass killings of the ‘suspected’ males of their families, helpless on the disappearance of their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons. They have been gang-raped, maimed, discriminated and intimidated. War has been destroying their homes and lives, crippling their personalities with fear.
More than 10,000 Kashmiri women have been raped, molested and sexually assaulted since the beginning of the uprising in 1989, till September 2014. Rape is shamelessly used as a weapon of war by the Indian military, as they punish the women for allegedly assisting the militants by providing them with food and shelter.
According to a 1993 Human Rights Watch report on Kashmir, most cases of rape take place during cordon-and-search operations, and just living in a certain area can put women at risk of getting raped. There can be no doubt that the use of rape is common and routinely goes unpunished. Indian government authorities have rarely investigated charges of rape by security forces in Kashmir. In fact, the armed personnel have been given impunity through the oppressive “The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA)”, which enables the soldiers with power to kill and arrest people without warrant. It is this law which denied sanction to the few reported cases of sexual violence, while most incidents go unreported because of social stigmas and fear of authorities.
The indirect yet grave suffering of war atrocities can be observed in the quiet resilience of half widows-women whose husbands have been disappeared by the forces. Though there has been no official account of half-widows, a 2010 report named “Half-Widow, Half-Wife?” carefully estimates around 1500 half-widows in Kashmir. These women spend entire lives on false hopes. An undeclared dead husband leaves them with no property rights under civil law. Even though Islam allows them to remarry, 90% of half-widows do not consider this option due to various social pressures.
Conflict has not only affected the societal norms of Kashmir but has also deteriorated both the mental and physical health of the civilians. Violence induces stress, causes severe depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD, an unknown disease in the once peaceful Kashmir, now distresses 800,000 people, especially young females.
Stress and depression disturbs the normal hormone levels in females, leading to major reproductive problems, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), the leading factor for infertility. Between six to ten percent of all Kashmiri women suffer from PCOS.
A 2006 study by the Medicines Sans Frontiers states that stress does not only cause infertility in women, but is also the main cause behind high rates of miscarriages and abortions. Moreover, orthopedic problems and hypertensions are also becoming common among Kashmiri females.
The rising conflict and the resulting difficulties leave Kashmiris with seemingly no choice but to take their own lives. The state of Jammu and Kashmir once boasted the lowest suicide rates in India; 0.5 deaths per 100,000 people in 1989. As war took its toll, the rate increased to 20 deaths per 100,000 in 2007, according to a research by Kashmir’s only psychiatric disease hospital. This report is just the tip of the iceberg. Most suicide attempts and the resulting deaths are not even reported, especially those taking place in the rural areas. The shame and fear of society is too great to report an act which has been forbidden in Islam, the religion of majority of the Kashmiris.
Sixty-two percent of all suicides are attempted by females. Due to the growing incidents of rape, torture, humiliation, stress, depression, infertility and society’s increasing pressures, the woman of Kashmir cannot help but think of giving up. The rate at which suicide is spreading among the Kashmiri womenfolk is alarming, to say the least.
The Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions cites rape, murder and torture of civilians by militants and the government as a violation of humanitarian law. Nevertheless, the heinous crimes against humanity taking place in Kashmir are grossly neglected at international forums. In this time and age when issues such as women empowerment and female liberty are prioritized above all, and when even minor acts of violence against women are dealt with seriously and rightly so, is the woman of Kashmir perhaps a tier lower than the ordinary female of the twenty-first century? Just because her endeavours does not serve the political agendas of certain world powers, should her struggle against the Indian war crimes go voiceless and in vain?
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