Growing Number of Women Disabled Amid Kashmir Violence Receive Little or No Aid
Feeling abandoned and fearful, women disabled in conflict-related violence are deemed a burden to their families and don’t have equal access to health care or economic opportunities. The government has mentioned the idea of compensation but hasn't taken any action.View Team
ANANTNAG, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR — Shameema Akhter, 25, opens the keypad lock on her cellphone with her shivering hand.
She tries again to call a friend who lives in Arwani, a village 12 kilometers (8 miles) away in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district.
But her friend doesn’t answer.
Lying on a thick mat on the cement floor of a small yard at her parents’ home, she lowers her gaze when an elderly man knocks on the main gate and asks for her father.
Her parents and younger brothers aren’t home. She is alone.
She calls her friend again.
This time, she reaches her and asks her to come soon.
“I am afraid to stay alone in the house,” Akhter says. “It always reminds me of my helplessness.”
Akhter was shot on July 9, 2016, during a protest the day after Burhan Wani, a well-known leader of an anti-government armed group, was killed by Indian security forces. According to her medical records, she suffered abdominal and spinal trauma from the gunshot.
She says she wasn’t taking part in the protest. When she was shot, she was walking home after visiting her parents.
“I had gone to visit my parents in the nearby paddy field,” she says, as tears come to her eyes. “I didn’t know it would be my last time to walk and live a normal life.”
On her way home, she says she got stuck on the roadside as hundreds of men and women passed by carrying signs with freedom slogans. Violence broke out, and she and others were shot. Three protesters died that day.
Consequences from that day continue to haunt her. She had been set to have an arranged marriage, but her injuries left her unable to have children. The wedding was canceled.
The long-term effects of the ongoing violence are complex. The death toll and the insecure political future of the region are commonly discussed. But for the thousands of people who have been injured or permanently disabled, there is little awareness of their plight — and few options for support.
Women with disabilities say they face double discrimination: They are considered a burden to their families, and they don’t have equal access to health care and educational and economic opportunities.
The conflict here, equal parts religious and nationalist, dates to the end of British rule in 1947. Since then, violence has been frequent throughout the region, especially at the Line of Control, which divides Jammu and Kashmir, a state in India, from land claimed by Pakistan.
Between mid-July 2016 and the end of March 2018, as many as 145 civilians were killed by Indian military forces, according to a United Nations human rights report on Kashmir, the first of its kind. Up to 20 additional civilians are said to have been killed by armed groups.
Advocates say an increasing number of women are participating in protests, and thus the number of women injured or killed in the violence is rising. But some, such as Akhter, are just caught in the crossfire.
Khurram Parvez, program coordinator of Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, or JKCCS, a group of human-rights-focused organizations, says thousands of women have been joining the protests.
“Hundreds of women have been injured [at recent protests], and many were killed, which triggered more women to join the movement,” he says.
According to an annual report compiled by JKCCS, 450 people were killed in protest-related violence in 2017. Among those, 108 were civilians, 20 of whom were women.
Women are also increasingly among the injured, confirms Javed Ahmad Tak, who runs the nongovernmental organization Humanity Welfare Organization Helpline.
“But nobody is talking about their challenges, as they are confined to their homes and have lost touch to the outside world,” he says.
Tak says the government has made several announcements about offering job or cash compensation to those injured or disabled in the violence.
“But there is no progress in any of the promises made by them,” he says.
There are no official figures available about the exact number of men and women with disabilities in the region.
“I have personally met 50 to 60 women with different types of disabilities due to pellet and firearm injuries, and they need immediate medical intervention,” Tak says. “Most of them are from poor backgrounds and are completely dependent on their families.”
New civil society organizations have been created to address the medical needs of those injured in politically related violence, especially women.
Nighat Shafi Pandit, a social worker with HELP Foundation, which offers psychological and financial assistance to people affected by the conflict, says that in the region, a woman’s worth is determined by her health.
“Having a disability that is accidental and for which a family is not prepared in advance, means that she is [viewed as] useless and good for nothing,” she says.
Of the 535 people treated with eye injuries in local hospitals last year, the most common wounds were from pellets, bullets and tear gas shells. In 2016, 40 people, including 10 women, who suffered pellet-related eye injuries were helped by the organization to receive surgery free of charge at a private hospital.
Ruby Jan, 35, lost vision in her right eye from pellet fire on Aug. 8, 2016.
She says she heard gunshots outside her home and ran barefoot to look for her 4-year-old son, who had just left home to visit his uncle nearby.
“It hurts more when your own family says, ‘Why did you go out?’” Jan says. “At that time, I couldn’t consider anything other than saving my son.”
Her son wasn’t hurt, she says, but her vision loss has hit her family hard. She is unable to do much housework, and the vision in her other eye is increasingly blurry.
“I live every day in the fear of blindness,” she says. “My sister-in-law and mother-in-law look after the house now.”
Her family’s financial future is also insecure, because of her injuries, Jan says.
She has had to undergo three surgeries at a government-run hospital and one at a private facility. Her parents helped cover the expenses of treatment, because her husband is a truck driver who doesn’t earn much.
“I approached various government departments and met many politicians for job compensation,” Jan says. “But nobody listened to my pleas.”
While there has been some talk about providing compensation to those disabled because of the conflict, the process hasn’t been formalized.
“The departments want written proof on any case [where someone] is applying for any compensation [that she or he] was not a party to any violent activities,” Tak says.
Even then, it’s unclear what level of support the government could or would provide. To date, the only recorded benefit has been for widows and orphans who can prove they were not associated with anti-government groups. Some have received 750 Indian rupees (about $11) per month, says Zahoor Ahmad Mir, executive director of the Council for Rehabilitation of Widows, Orphans, Handicapped and Old Persons in the Jammu and Kashmir Social Welfare Department.
The government has yet to pass the Rights for Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016, which would require the state to recognize 21 disabilities rather than the current seven. It would also increase the quota of government jobs for people with disabilities from 3 percent to 4 percent.
“There is no rehabilitation policy drafted by the Home Ministry for state government to cover the pellet victims or civilians who have firearm injuries,” Mir says.
Police and government officials declined to comment on the status of the bill or any rehabilitation policy.
For Akhter, getting a job would be a big step toward rebuilding her self-confidence and ending her isolation. She says she is desperate to contribute to her family again.
“If I am able to support my family by restarting the work, my family would be very happy,” Akhter says. “I can become independent.”
Aliya Bashir, GPJ, translated some interviews from Kashmiri and Urdu.