The unending trauma of Kashmir’s women
It is hard to imagine a place in India where a vast majority of people live not having known the simple pleasures of taking a stroll down a road or taking a small road trip. Or indeed having a normal interaction with a neighbour or a friend. But this is the reality for most women in Kashmir who have lived for decades in abnormal conditions, thanks to the painful conflict which seemingly has no end.
There is a disproportionately high level of mental problems among women in Kashmir, but that hardly comes out in the open, first due to ignorance and second due to the fact that such an admission would bring with it much stigma.
Women have been recorded by researchers as having admitted in private to being taken to so-called peers and charlatans to cure them of treatable mental illnesses like depression and schizophrenia. Such women are usually young women who live in fear of brutalisation either by the security forces or the militants, mothers waiting for their lost sons or husbands, or widows of soldiers or militants.
There is just one mental health hospital in the state, an indication that this is not considered a very serious issue. I am speaking only of women here, but men too suffer the same mental health issues, living in a hothouse atmosphere of violence and fear. Living this life has become the norm for most people in Kashmir. Many women live lives of constant anxiety, never knowing if their sons or husbands will come home at the end of the day. For those whose sons join the militants, there is even greater mental stress owing to constant pressure from the security forces. Few are willing to believe that their sons could do something which would bring them the double distress of losing them and also facing the wrath of the security forces. For many women, even getting to a doctor to deal with physical illnesses is a chore given the constant curfews and dangers of going out of the house.
As for getting help for mental problems, it is almost impossible. In addition to all these problems, women face the brunt of violence at home. With little social support in the form of NGOs or counselling centres, women suffer this in silence leading to mental and physical consequences. This includes higher incidence of miscarriages and acute depression. Men, who have no outlet for their rage against their own helplessness, their frustration at the lack of employment and their inability to move freely take it out on their helpless wives and children.
Women in other parts of India, even in the poorest districts, are able to meet each other and have conversations about their families, talk about their hopes for their children. Here, there is none of that. In such a situation, the children are also a casualty. They grow up in an atmosphere where they see their mothers subject to violence at home. They often grow up in a home where the mother is really unable to take care of them properly due to mental or physical illness. They also grow up in an environment of constant violence and disruptions from school and the joyful activities of childhood.
The effects of these traumas will live far beyond the Kashmir conflict even it is resolved. The government which says it cares deeply about the people of Kashmir must look at this issue far more seriously. Children growing up in such a dystopian environment are far more likely to be susceptible to the propaganda of terrorists. Successive governments have talked about winning the hearts and minds of people, but it would be good to begin with their mental and physical health.
Now, more than ever, with no possibility of any scaling down of security operations and the horrific probability of more militant strikes, the people caught in the perpetual crosshairs, especially the women and children, should not become a footnote in the larger conflict.