In Kashmir, a story of women empowerment - Hindustan Times
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In Kashmir, a story of women empowerment

Apr 29, 2023 08:48 PM IST

Nighat Shafi Pandit, chairperson of HELP, has doggedly worked in the state for years, providing help to women who have suffered in the conflict.

The decades of unrest in Kashmir have been particularly harsh on women, even though things are looking up now. They have had to live through years of trauma due to the violence, terrorism, and operations by security forces. Many of them speak of living in fear each time their husbands or sons went out of their homes, not knowing if they would return. They were, and in many areas still are, unable to access mental health services, reproductive health services and livelihood avenues. Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have left, unable to function in the prevailing restrictive and often dangerous conditions.

Nighat Shafi Pandit of the HELP Foundation. (Photo credit: wikipeacewomen.org/) PREMIUM
Nighat Shafi Pandit of the HELP Foundation. (Photo credit: wikipeacewomen.org/)

Nighat Shafi Pandit, chairperson of the NGO HELP, is one of those who has doggedly worked in the state for years, providing help to women who have suffered in the conflict. “In Dardpora, Kupwara, the majority of women in the village are widows living with children and with no means of income. We thought we should provide them livelihoods through sustainable methods, working on skills they already possess in some measure and in areas suitable to the area and climate. We found that they took to sheep rearing and so made this a core activity.” There are also free vocational training centres for young women in handicrafts, tailoring, and knitting.

In Hurduna, a hamlet close to the Line of Control (LoC), women have taken the initiative into their own hands. They are mostly engaged in farming and began dealing in milk and milk products which gives them a steady source of income. Shaiq Nazir, who also works for HELP, says he is staggered at the courage of these women who refused to leave the area for safer places, choosing instead to become economically independent through sustainable ways. The Bangus Valley Women’s Cooperative in the village is modelled on Amul in Gujarat, and Nighat says she marvels at how most of these women who have faced severe deprivation and trauma are so positive and determined to be change makers rather than lament their circumstances.

Kupwara was one of the most violent districts close to the LoC. Terror and encounter killings were the norm. Encounters and killings took place frequently at night. Nighat says, “It was not the scale of violence, as much as its unpredictable nature that posed the greatest danger”, she says.

In 1997, she was the first woman to start an orphanage for children left homeless by the armed conflict in the Kashmir Valley through the HELP Foundation. The orphanage was established in the Saida Kadal area of Srinagar and called Shehjaar (cool shade of a tree). The children from far-flung districts came to stay and study there.

Organisations such as Sewa, inspired by the work of HELP, came to work in the area bringing with them their expertise in women’s empowerment and special social welfare schemes designed to make women economically independent. As a result, the women have diversified from milk and milk products to processing other food items. They have also been able to access marketing support and develop marketing skills themselves thanks to the confluence of NGOs which have worked in partnerships with state organisations.

HELP not only educates children with no fathers but also provides mental health counselling for women and their rehabilitation. HELP’s schemes have now become a model for women in conflict, in not only other areas of the state but also in neighbouring countries such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan, something which should be a source of encouragement as India focuses on women-led development in its G20 presidency.

lalita.panicker@hindustantimes.com

The views expressed are personal

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