Spare a thought for Kashmir’s women
The tragedy of Kashmir has been so great and on so many fronts, the latest being the political chaos. But one which is rarely spoken of is the impact of the conflict on women. In the larger context, the dramatis personae are the security forces, the state and central governments, the militants and their sponsors across the border. But what about those who have no choice but to live in these trying conditions with no way out and little help by way of mental health counselling? Women suffer the most in all conflict situations. Here, they have to live with the disappearances of husbands, fathers and sons or daughters either to militancy, in violence during protests or incarceration.
There have been reports of extreme physical trauma that women suffer from enduring and witnessing violence over long periods of time. These include depression, miscarriages, spontaneous abortions and an increase in domestic violence. Many of the psychological effects need extensive medical care, which is neither easily available nor indeed an option for many women given the stigma associated with it.
Women are economically disempowered when the men disappear either into militant ranks or are taken away by the security forces. Many of them, with little by way of skills, are forced to take over the reins of the household with no external help. The women waiting for their men to return are defined by feminist Urvashi Butalia as half-widows. They cannot access any benefit which could accrue to a widow and live in terror both of the security forces and the militants. The woman is forced then to be both parents to children, caregivers to the elderly and income generators.
Women are at risk of sexual violence from both the security forces and militants and are forced into silence fearing the repercussions for themselves and their families. For many women, the sheer trauma of living without any knowledge of whether their husbands or sons are alive has led to an increase in suicidal tendencies. There are few avenues of enjoyment or relaxation in a valley, which is heavily fortified.
An evening out at the cinema or just strolling down a mall is not in the realm of possibility for most women. They are forced to live within the walls of their homes in an environment of disruption and violence. Suicides have increased since the insurgency began along with severe mental problems, which somehow don’t feature in the larger scheme of things. I don’t ever recall any politician or interlocutor speak of the mental stress and trauma of living in such depressing circumstances or how to deal with these.
Even those who are fortunate enough to get treatment have to go back to a situation of violence and stress, hardly conducive to healing and coping.
A few years ago, Doctors without Borders released a report, which stated that at least half of the population in the Valley had mental health disorders. The percentage among women was much higher.
Kashmir has hardly any mental health facility worth the name apart from the Government Psychiatric Disease Hospital in Srinagar for a population of over seven million.
Women suffering from traumas, which are untreated and unrecognised, often pass on the stress to their children. This has meant that generations of children who have never known a normal childhood have to confront and eventually absorb the traumas of their mothers.
Among the negative outcomes of the violence is that women simply lose their confidence and their ability to trust anyone. Reports from the psychiatric hospital tell sad tales of patients unable to eat, unable to sleep and anxious at all times. Successive governments have been focused on different formulas for peace from talks with separatists to increased retribution that it would seem that they have almost forgotten the human and gender face of this tragedy. But the illness among women has a devastating effect on their families as well, especially as their conditions worsen. Unable to access proper help, many of them self-medicate creating further health complications.
It is time the discourse moved from just territoriality and cross-border politics to compensation and rehabilitation for women victims of the violence. If the situation in Srinagar is dire, the availability of mental health facilities in rural areas is nil.
For women living with the grief of having lost children or other relatives, the trauma is compounded. The debilitating effects of grief are not understood or addressed. Many women spend inordinate amounts of time in courts fighting cases of disappearances of loved ones. They are not equipped for this and the long delays just exacerbate their mental distress. As things go back to the drawing board in Kashmir, there seems very little hope of better times to come for women in the state.