Enforced disappearances: The plight of Kashmir's 'half widows'
“I often wake at night with an uneasy sense of choking and being throttled. My breathlessness and heart palpitations last all night. The next morning an abysmal sense of soreness swamps me,” says Haseena, a 50-year-old woman from the village of Dardpora, in [India-administered] Kashmir, describing her mental anguish. She is one of the 20,000 widows in the valley; women whose husbands were killed either by militants, state security forces or in the crossfire.
Dardpora, with its snow-clad mountains, apple orchards, frozen lakes and the deodar groves, might seem a utopian place but this is far from the truth. The village, 140 km north of Srinagar, lies close to the line of control and along an accessible cross-over route to Pakistan-administered Kashmir, leaving its residents extremely exposed to the conflict. More than 150 women in Dardpora are victims of a gendered violence peculiar to Kashmir, becoming 'half-widows'.
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'Half-widows' is used to describe wives of men who have disappeared but have not been declared dead. The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons estimates that 8,000-10,000 men have disappeared since 1989, leading to an estimated 1,500 'half-widows' in [India-administered] Kashmir. However, the Indian government doesn’t recognise the phenomenon of enforced disappearances in Kashmir and asserts that the ‘missing’ count is not more than 4,000. This leaves the 'half-widows' in a state of permanent limbo as they suffer the consequences of an ‘ambiguous loss’: a situation of loss without closure or clarity.
Banu Begum has spent the last 20 years caring for five children without her parents’ or in-laws’ support. When her husband went out to shop for their daughter’s wedding and never returned, she was abandoned by her own family.
This unresolved grief results in post traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder. According to a recent survey by Action Aid, 14 per cent of the 4,000 Kashmiri men and women studied were found to have severe mental health illnesses, the most common of which is depression. A study by Paul D’Souza and Aman Trust, Vulnerabilities of Half Widows of Jammu and Kashmir, suggests that 92 per cent of Kashmir's 'half-widows' experience high vulnerability across the social, economic, gender, cultural and health dimensions.
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Farooq Ahmed Mir, an activist describing the plight of 'half-widows' in Dardpora says, “They spend most of their lives running from one jail (or army camp) to another trying to find answers but find none. Not only do they become the sole bread-earner with the sudden responsibility of bringing up the children but also lose the community and family support”.
The financial challenges they face are aplenty. Getting a pension, ration cards, bank accounts or even transferring the husband's property becomes difficult as a death certificate is required for all. A paper titled The Plight of Kashmiri Half-Widows by Deya Bhattacharya explains the challenges with property rights.
“Under Islamic jurisprudence, a widow with children gets one-eighth of her husband’s property. A widow without children gets one-fourth. A 'half-widow', till her husband is declared dead, gets nothing.”
Although there is a provision for an ex-gratia payment to the families after they obtain a death certificate from the local screening committee, this can be done only seven years after the disappearance and is subject to proving that the victim was never involved in militant activities. However, such a relief payment is perceived to be “blood money” – money in exchange for the lives of the husband – and therefore most of them refuse the relief despite their economic hardships.
In 2014, Muslim religious clerics decreed that a 'half-widow' could remarry four years after her husband’s disappearance. Coming 22 years after the first custodial disappearance, this reform was too late for most women in Dardpora. Most women, being the only ones to care for and support their children, couldn’t even imagine a remarrying. The 'half-children' of widows and 'half-widows' are also a vulnerable lot, easily influenced by the stigma of being ‘fatherless’ and the climate of social alienation.
The lives of widows and 'half-widows' highlight a lopsided legal system, government neglect, a cruel culture of ostracisation and widespread mental trauma. The Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society recommends that a holistic rights-based approach addressing the 'half-widow' situation be taken up by the government as a priority by first acknowledging the enforced disappearances. A data-based survey to study disappearances and the socio-economic situation of 'half-widows' is an essential part to start with, so that a thorough judicial process to streamline the system that provides compensation to the affected can be taken up. A special bench of the high court should be convened to expedite the disappearance cases so that the families know the whereabouts of their loved ones.
According to Dr Arif, a psychiatrist, “The governmental initiatives have to be also supported by ongoing civil society efforts to enable the provision of primary and mental health care to support women on an ongoing basis. Projects that empower women financially such as income generating projects, scholarships for children should also be initiated”.
As India-administered Kashmir begins to initiate transitional justice in the state, both governmental and non-governmental interventions that empower direct and indirect victims of gendered violence in the community are a must.
This was originally published in The Wire, India
The writer is a photojournalist based in India.