Kashmir: The link between armed conflict and domestic violence

Cases of domestic violence usually go unreported in Indian-administered Kashmir because media tends to focus more on political issues. Observers say that social conflict increases incidences of violence against women.

a man riding a skateboard up the side of a building: The conflict-stricken region has witnessed back-to-back lockdowns that have confined people to their homes

© AFP/T. Mustafa The conflict-stricken region has witnessed back-to-back lockdowns that have confined people to their homes

Seven-year-old Laiza saw her mother for the last time in a video call. Her mother was lying on a hospital bed, her face completely unrecognizable and her body severely burnt.

After one glimpse, she threw away the phone as she couldn’t bear to see her mother in such a painful state.

Twenty-eight-year-old Shahzada, who hailed from Aishmuqam village in southern Kashmir’s Anantnag district, got married nine years ago in Makhoora village. Her married life was never a smooth affair, but on March 25 things took an ugly turn as the cruelty meted out to her reached an extreme when her husband and in-laws allegedly set her on fire.

In a video recorded on the hospital bed, Shahzada murmured that she was set ablaze by her husband, mother-in-law and father-in-law with kerosene.

She said she had been subject to domestic violence for years.

After nine days of battling death at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar city, Shahzada succumbed to her injuries, leaving behind her daughter and 18-month-old son Immad.

The incident triggered not only protests in her village, but also public discussion on the neglected issue of domestic violence in the conflict-torn region.

‘They are beasts!’

Back at her home in Aishmuqam, her two children are living with their maternal grandparents in a state of shock. The family is grieving and wailing for Shahzada, who they recall as beautiful and brave before her marriage.

“Her husband called us in the middle of the night and asked us to come to hospital, saying she set herself on fire. But we couldn’t believe it, we knew something was wrong,” her 60-year-old grieving mother told DW.

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She added that her daughter had regularly faced violence at the hands of her husband.

“When we reached the hospital, we saw her whole body burnt, just her feet had their skin intact. For nine days, she battled death. She told us how they poured kerosene on her clothes and set her on fire with a matchstick.

“She told us about the pain she felt when her skin burnt. They are beasts not humans,” said her mother, who is now worried about the future of her two grandchildren.

Laiza and her brother were asleep when the incident happened. However, Laiza remembers her mother’s screams, which woke her up.

“She is in shock about what happened to her mother. In the evening, when we sit for dinner, she tells us that she wants to sleep with her mother in her grave. We want stern punishment for the culprits,” the grandmother said.

Domestic violence in India-administered Kashmir hasn’t received much public attention or media coverage, as families often tend to cover up such incidences due to widespread social stigma about the problem.

There is also the issue of unavailability of shelter homes for female victims.

Rising cases of domestic violence

Over the past two years, gender-based violence has been on the rise in the conflict-stricken region, which has witnessed back-to-back lockdowns that have confined people to their homes.

In August 2019, the Indian government revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status and divided the region into two federally administered territories. To prevent backlash, New Delhi imposed a harsh lockdown and cut off communication links. Months later, it relaxed some of the restrictions.

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Then in March 2020, authorities began enforcing another lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) conducted by India’s Health Ministry has revealed worrying figures about the problem in the region. It concluded that in 2019-20, about 9.6% of Kashmiri women in the age group 18-49 experienced domestic violence.

On April 10, days after Shahzada was set on fire, another 32-year-old woman took her own life at her in-laws’ house in the same district.

Her family accused her in-laws of cruelty and of forcing her to take the extreme step.

Investigations into both cases are ongoing.

According to the figures released by a police helpline center in Srinagar, there has been an upward trend in distress calls from women facing domestic violence.

In 2019, the helpline received 55 calls, but in 2020 it received 177 calls. However, the numbers have now increased manifold over the last three months, with over 120 distress calls made by women seeking help during this time.

Activists say hundreds of cases go unreported as victims fear to come forward and file complaints with authorities.

Help for survivors

While the police claim that there is a response system in place, it’s providing little help to the survivors.

“There is an emergency response system in place for women in all the police stations across the region. It is handled by women themselves. If there is extreme distress, then the police station concerned is informed to provide help. Then the further necessary legal course is taken,” a senior police official told DW.

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Shazia Malik, professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Kashmir, told DW that many women suffer silently as their families try to cover up these incidents.

“I think people cover it up; they associate family honor with it. Many women were burnt and murdered brutally in the past also,” she said.

“If it is murder or an extreme burning incident then it comes to our notice through the media. We don’t pay much attention to day-to-day abuse and violence. If violence is noticed from the first day, it will not reach to this extent. Women have to suffer because they don’t have property rights or family support of financial independence,” she said, adding that the women lack organizational support as well.

“The cases are alarming. Women can’t approach police all the time because of the situation here. Women need some other approach in a dignified way and there needs to be strict domestic violence laws and a quick justice system.”

Ezabir Ali, a social activist based in the main city of Srinagar, told DW that “every woman in Kashmir has a story to tell but her lips are sealed due to family pressure and social stigma.”

“The fact is that there is hardly any support structure for women going through or facing violent intimate partner relationships. There are no shelters for women to walk out and stay safe. The Women’s Commission is a dead entity for many years now. Under these conditions where do women go to seek help or support?”

Author: Rifat Fareed (Aishmuqam, Indian-administered Kashmir)

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