Recurrent lockdowns in Kashmir see surge in domestic abuse

image used for representational purposes only. Courtesy: The guardian

By Asma Hafiz,

In August 2019, Insha (name changed) lay dying in her husband’s house after he locked her in a room for seven days. With phone lines shut, she could not reach her family. Eventually, she was rescued by the police after her parents grew suspicious. If the police had not reached on time, she says, she could have died.

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Insha had been subjected to domestic violence throughout her marriage, but during the security and communication lockdown in Kashmir after the revocation of its special status, things got worse.

Data around the globe suggests a surge in cases of domestic abuse during lockdown imposed to contain coronavirus. But in the Himalayan region of Kashmir, the spurt in gender-based violence was seen after a full year of military lockdown. In August 2019, India revoked Kashmir’s semi-autonomy, deployed thousands of additional troops and imposed an unprecedented security and communication lockdown. In early 2020, as Kashmir was limping back to “normalcy”, a nationwide lockdown was imposed in India in view of the pandemic – locking victims with their perpetrators.

Syed Ruksana Alam, Administrator at Sakhi-One Stop Centre (OSC) Srinagar, a project of the Union Ministry of Child and Women’s Development, said calls to their helpline 181 had risen during the lockdown period.

“Post-august last year, calls to helplines had dropped sharply since the cellular network was snapped and now we are witnessing a dramatic rise. We have been receiving 7 to 10 distress calls in a day and sometimes even more than that,” says Ruksana Alam.

Two months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration split up the disputed Jammu and Kashmir state into two federal territories, the government dissolved State Commission for Protection of Women and Child Rights (SCPWCR) and six other commissions in the region.

With this, women in Kashmir who had found solace in this government institution had nowhere to go. Women’s advocates believe that the actual picture is quite grim and it is difficult to ascertain how many women were subjected to violence in the past year.

With no shelter homes, victims left in the lurch

After staying in an abusive marriage for fifteen long years, Rehana (name changed) thought the only way of putting an end to her miseries was suicide. She had endured severe physical and emotional abuse from her husband who would subject her to marital rape in front of her kids.

Rehana fled from her husband, seeking shelter in her mother’s home. However, her abuser would follow her whenever she ventured out of the house. On one such occasion, Rehana was beaten ruthlessly on the road till someone called the police. A police officer then gave her the number of a lawyer, saying she could help her.

“The fact that she was referred to me by a police officer shows how overburdened our institutions are and women’s safety is not a priority here. There are no shelter homes for women in Kashmir. This forces them to continue living with their abuser,” says Subreen Malik, a lawyer and chairperson of Mehram: Women’s Cell, a not-for-profit organisation working for the upliftment of Kashmiri women.

Kashmir lacks women shelter homes which are supposed to protect survivors of domestic violence. With nowhere to go, the victims are forced to look for rented accommodation – an option many find inconvenient.

During the coronavirus lockdown, Subreen’s phone was flooded with calls from victims asking for help. She says finding accommodation for these victims proved difficult due to strict stay-at-home orders. One of the victims was Rehana who is now living in a safe locality with her children.

“In our society, renting accommodation to a woman without a husband or a brother is deemed unacceptable – one of the reasons why domestic violence survivors are unable to find a place to rent. India’s Domestic Violence Act gives the woman a right to shelter and yet there are no shelter homes in Kashmir,” says Subreen.

Talking about the dire need of establishing shelter homes for women in Kashmir, Ruksana says in extreme cases they send victims to Nari Niketan in Shalimar, Srinagar. However, it is an orphanage for children and the name is misleading.

“Many people boast about promoting women empowerment but when it comes to finding places of safety that cater to the needs of different women, they don’t help. We have failed women in every way,” she adds.

No escape from their abusers

With the order of staying home, many support groups are unable to function properly which makes it difficult for victims to seek help. Due to home isolation, many women are forced to quarantine with their abusers. For women in Kashmir, escaping from an abusive relationship is not easy as they are locked in with their abusers quite often due to recurrent curfews and shutdowns with no avenue of escape.

“Lockdown in Kashmir is not a new concept. It’s shocking to see even after all these years we do not have a proper mechanism to deal with any form of gender-based violence. Despite living through this for so long, our attention has never gone to this problem,” says Arshie Qureshi, a member of Mehram: Women’s Cell.

 Mehram has received around 150 cases since its inception in June. Arshie says they have managed to touch a minimal base of 3-4 cases a day, fearing that the ground reality is quite worse since not many are aware of the options available at their disposal.

According to a report submitted by the Social Welfare Department, 16 cases of rape and 64 incidents of molestations were reported from Jammu and Kashmir after the first lockdown period was imposed from March 24 to April 24.

A week into the lockdown, Fiza (name changed) noticed her husband had become more irritable and they would frequently engage in heated arguments. It started with unrelenting insults and yelling and soon escalated to beatings. She recalls how one time she fell unconscious after her abuser beat her with a leather belt. She now lives with her mother and her infant daughter.

“It’s like the lockdown exposed the rift in our relationship. I feel like I was living with a completely different person all this time,” she said.

According to Arshie, the perpetrators become more dangerous during lockdowns. This is because they believe all the institutions are not functioning properly and hence enjoy a certain degree of impunity.

“One thing that I have learned after working in this area is that curfews and lockdowns may come to an end but gender-based violence will continue to flourish if we do not take any action,” she says.

Fiza recollects how every inch of her body was covered with bruises after she left her husband’s home, thinking she would not wake up the next day. Tightening her grip around her daughter, she hopes to provide a better future for her and start a new life together.