Gender-based violence in Kashmir
TRIGGER WARNING: Contains extremely graphic descriptions of violence.
Written By: Masuma Ali
Edited By: Anna Mohan
Illustrations by: Srashti Khandelwal
Jammu and Kashmir have been enveloped in violent conflict since the India- Pakistan partition in 1947. Violence in this region has escalated since 1989, reaching a tumultuous point in 2016 – instigated by historic clashes and unresolved issues. It is estimated that 400,000-750,000 (the exact number is unknown and disputed) Indian military and security forces are currently placed in Kashmir. Since 1989, they have been accused of human rights abuses towards civilians. In the 32 years of violence, estimates show more than 70,000 people have died and more than 8,000 have disappeared.
Heavy militarisation in the region has resulted in women becoming the targets and survivors of violence. In most militarised occupations, women’s bodies act as a terrain for politics to be enacted upon. Official data from the crime branch in Srinagar reveals that in the six years leading up to March 2019, there have been 1,046 rape cases that are under trial, of which 831 have been pending since 2014. 820 of these cases under trial include victims who are minors.
Despite the prevalence and systemic nature of gendered violence, it is an issue often overlooked with more attention being given to harder security matters. Consequently, statistics displaying the violence against women are significantly lacking. Furthermore, taboos surrounding sexual violence cause under-reporting – both of which prevent in-depth assessments of the difficulties faced by women. To avoid rape and molestation, child marriages are becoming progressively common. Likewise, the dropout rate of girls from schools has also risen as a consequence of how often they are taunted and harassed by army personnel on their way to school.
TW: The following list contains instances and descriptions of violence enacted against women in Kashmir. It is included to offer specific insight into the struggles faced by Kashmiri women:
In 1991: more than forty women between the ages of 13-80 were supposedly raped at gunpoint by the 4th Rajputana Rifles Unit in the Kunan Poshpora village in Kupwara.
Army personnel trampled on a four-day-old baby girl under their boots. The mother of the baby was raped her mother – the baby died three days later due to extensive injuries
One survivor, who was raped while being nine months pregnant, gave birth to a child with a fractured arm five days later.
Five rape survivors have died, two of them experiencing continuous vaginal bleeding due to the extent of the raping.
Fifteen rape survivors supposedly underwent hysterectomies – surgeries to remove their uteruses.
In 2009: bodies of Neelofar Jan and Asiya Jan were found in a shallow stream in Shopian. A post-mortem showed that both women had been raped and murdered but government commissions and a Central Investigation report stated that no rape or murder had occurred.
In 2015: Rizwana (name changed for protective reasons), desperate to ease her family’s financial difficulties, is hired as an assistant for a district official. She soon finds that the motivations behind her job offer were sexually driven. Following a few days of work, the official forcibly raped her in the workplace.
In October 2020: Noor’s 21-year-old daughter had gone to collect the wedding dress of the bride for her cousin’s wedding. As she was returning, she was abducted and raped by two men. She was brutally assaulted – graphic details provided by family members entail that she was beaten, tortured, choked with her own amulet and her tongue was slit. She died after spending a month in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit).
Further case studies of rape and violence against women in Kashmir can be found here.
Aside from the direct violence inflicted on women’s bodies, women also face other forms of gender-based violence. While direct violence is largely inflicted on males, the consequences of this result in indirect suffering for women, as represented by half widows. Half widows are women whose husbands are missing but haven’t been declared dead. There are estimated to be 1,500 half widows in Kashmir. They are not entitled to pensions and governmental relief systems, causing severe economic hardship.
Most disappearances have occurred in rural areas, where women are already much less able to independently provide for themselves. The disappearance of their husbands results in these women relying on their in-laws, and essentially being seen as burdens. The desperation towards discovering their husbands’ whereabouts renders half widows susceptible to ‘threats, extortion and manipulation’ by those in power. An example is that of “messengers” who take money from half-widows in exchange for information from kidnappers, without any guarantees. Furthermore, government officials have also taken advantage of these women by demanding sexual favours or money. Half widows have an uncertain and vulnerable future as they are only entitled to compensation when death certificates of their missing husbands are produced. Islamically, half widows are forbidden from remarrying until their husband is pronounced dead. However, a consensus agreed by Islamic scholars sees the waiting period for remarrying at 4 years – which undoubtedly transforms the lives of Kashmir’s half widows. This consensus was reached on 26 December 2013 after three consultations in Srinagar, Kashmir.
Alongside the worsening plight of half widows, domestic violence in Kashmir is also on the rise – where at least 10 cases of spousal violence towards the female partner get reported to Srinagar’s Women’s Police station every day, with around 1000-1500 annual complaints. These would be much lower than the actual number of domestic violence cases that occur due to underreporting.
Why is gender-based violence against women in Kashmir on the rise?
An obvious answer would be due to the military occupation and the use of rape as a weapon of war. Another argument considers that violence towards women has increased due to the shift in women’s socio-economic roles within Kashmir’s traditional society. With many husbands (typically the breadwinners) dead or missing, women have been forced to take up jobs to make a living. This fuels conflicts as many men do not feel comfortable with women working and possibly attaining a higher economic status than them. IPS (Inter Press Service) met a woman in Srinagar who told them that she had filed a complaint against her husband because he was forcing her to give him her wages, threatening her with a divorce. Surveys carried out by Ehsaas (a women’s rights NGO) found that 75% of Kashmiri men felt that their masculinity was threatened if their wives didn’t obey them. It seems that women in Kashmir are doubly vulnerable - on one level they are constantly harassed and ambushed by army personnel but on another level, among their own [emasculated] husbands and men in their local vicinities, they live in fear of being attacked.
It seems that women in Kashmir are doubly vulnerable - on one level they are constantly harassed and ambushed by army personnel but on another level, among their own [emasculated] husbands and men in their local vicinities, they live in fear of being attacked.
Violent conflict, especially when it spans over several decades in the case of Kashmir, breeds a culture of impunity, making women powerless in the face of gender-based violence. In 2013, the United Nations rapporteur on violence against women insisted that the Indian government should dismantle legislative clearances like ‘the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act (AFSPA)’ that have ‘mostly resulted in impunity for human rights violations [since] the law protects the armed forces from effective prosecution in non-military courts.'
These laws provide tremendous free rein to soldiers like the ability to shoot to kill in some situations, arrest people without warrants as well as offering immunity from prosecution. Powers like these have enabled tragic human rights violations to unfold in Kashmir for many decades. The Indian government must engage in reversing the Acts to ensure that women in Kashmir are safer and so that army personnel are held accountable for their actions, allowing for justice to be served.