Updated: Jan 24
Pampore & Pulwama: It began with a slap.
Over time, Gulshana Akhter’s husband became more violent.
For the first six month after she married, everything seemed fine, recalled Akhter, 34, who now lives with her parents—her father is a mason and mother a housewife—in the Konibal area of Pampore, south Kashmir.
Then her husband changed, and over the seven years that she was married, she landed up at her parent’s home several times with bruises and injuries.
Each time promises were made, and after a hastily patched up reconciliation, she would return to her matrimonial home.
After a year and half, Akhter had her first child. “I thought things would get better and my condition would improve but with time, it only got worse,” she said, adjusting her head scarf.
Then, in the middle of a cold winter night early in 2020, with piles of snow everywhere, Akhter’s mother got a phone call. It was her daughter. She was sobbing and could barely speak.
“Her husband and in-laws had beaten her mercilessly,” said Amina Bano, Akhter’s mother.
Amina Bano woke up her younger son and asked him to drive her to Shadimarg Kellar, around 45 km away in south Kashmir from the town of Konibal, where her daughter lived with her husband and in-laws.
“On our way I kept praying for her life and well being as if I knew something wrong had happened to her,” said her mother. “We reached Kellar after a two hour drive and saw her hiding behind a huge snow mound, shivering in the cold. Her clothes were torn and hair wet. Her husband had dragged her on the snow and thrown her out of the house.”
After a month of deliberations and discussion, Akhter finally decided to file a case at the State Commission For Women in Srinagar. The commission was created in April 1999 to investigate and examine matters relating to safeguards provided for women under the Indian Constitution and other laws.
For many women, filing a complaint at the police station is a daunting task. Activists and NGOs working in Kashmir on gender issues considered the Commission a meaningful alternative for women to come forward and report abuse, given the shortage of women police stations in the erstwhile state.
For the first few months there was almost no progress, Akhter said. Finally, her husband was summoned and asked to provide maintenance for her and her child.
A month later on 5 August 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government stripped Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) of its special status under article 370 of the Constitution and divided the restive state into two union territories.
Overnight, the Women’s Commission, along with six other commissions, including those dealing with human rights, right to information (RTI) and rights of the disabled, were disbanded and about 160 special laws that applied to the erstwhile state were scrapped.
As it did with many state laws under the J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019, the Indian government could have protected the Commissions, if it so chose. Other local laws have been preserved, such as the Public Services Guarantee Act (PSGA), 2011, the draconian Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act (PSA), 1978, and the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989.
By scrapping the Women’s Commission, Gulshan Akhter’s sole hope of maintenance for herself and her child was gone. Dozens of other women, whose cases were pending in the Commission now find themselves similarly abandoned.
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Redressal for women who experience violence was hard even when J&K was a state, but the Commission offered some hope. Now, with violence against women reportedly spiking nation-wide after the Covid-19 lockdown, there are few places that can help.
Vasundhra Pathak Masoodi, a lawyer and the last person to head the J&K State Women's Commission, said she had never in her career witnessed such a sudden and spontaneous spike in cases
“Violence against women has more than doubled since the Covid-19 lockdown,” said Masoodi. “I personally received hundreds of calls but could do nothing except offer consolation, since there is no longer a Women’s Commission.”
Escalating Violence Against Women
When J&K was a state, there were no district women’s police stations or shelter homes, as mandated by the Domestic Violence Act, 2010.
Just one police station placed in Srinagar was supposed to handle all cases of violence against women from 10 districts in the Kashmir valley.
But calls relating to domestic violence and sexual harassment have more than doubled since March 2020, an official at the sole women's police station in Srinagar said, a finding in line with Masoodi’s observation.
"A single women’s police station for 10 districts cannot even address 5% of the crisis," said an official at the sole women’s police station, requesting anonymity.
Srinagar’s Help Foundation, which runs a resource centre for domestic violence survivors, confirmed a spike in such cases after a national lockdown, announced on 22 March after the Covid-19 pandemic began.
It exacerbated an already difficult situation nationwide.
Throughout India, almost one in three married women experience spousal violence, physical, emotional or sexual, found the first phase of the 2019-20 National Family Health Survey.
Of all women in India who have ever experienced any type of physical or sexual violence, 14% have sought help, while 77% have neither sought help nor told anyone about the violence they experienced, the previous survey of 2015-16 revealed. The current all India data is not yet known.
There were 223 rapes, 1,440 assaults ‘with intent to outrage their modesty’, 348 cases of cruelty by husbands, and eight dowry-related deaths recorded in the erstwhile state in 2019.
In J&K, there appears to be a link between security crackdowns and violence against women, experts said.
During previous clampdowns in 2016 and 2017, cases of general violence and domestic violence against women surged in Kashmir. Between January 2016 and February 2017, the Women’s Commission received 220 cases, compared to just 142 during 2015, according to reports compiled by the Commission.
‘Whatever Little We Had Has Been Taken Away’
Ifra Jan, 24, grew up with a father prone to violent rages.
“I faced a lot of abuse since childhood,” said Jan. “But I never understood what was wrong, and I am still looking for answers.”
Since she was responsible for the care of her ailing mother, studying was hard for Jan. Yet, she completed her graduation and followed it up with a one-year diploma in fashion design.
In January 2020, Jan fell ill. Nobody in her family asked her what was wrong and for four days she went without food or care.
When a cousin dropped by to visit, she insisted on taking Jan with her. She took her to hospital and when her condition improved, Jan returned home to a furious and suspicious father who suspected she might have “done something wrong”, said Jan.
He asked her to leave the house.
Jan now lives in a single room, on the third floor, “all alone” and has looked after herself. Then the pandemic hit and, suddenly, she was alone.
“My family has not enquired even once about me,” she said.
After about a week, when food ran out, Jan began contacting various government departments and NGOs, with no luck. Chance led her to the chairperson of the Help Foundation, Nighat Shafi Pandit, who provided Jan with food but counselling.
“Nighat baji not only supported me in my tough times but provided me with a tailoring machine as I have a diploma in fashion designing,” said Jan. “Now I stitch and design clothes but the work is low and I still face a lot of problems.”
“The administration is not concerned about the safety and security of women,” said Pandit, upset that the Women’s Commission was disbanded with no alternative offered.
“We have been suffering for so many decades but now the situation has worsened, and no one is accountable,” said Pandit. “But now our basic rights too have been taken, by abolishing what little we had.”
(Safina Nabi is an independent journalist based in Kashmir. She writes about gender, health, social justice and human rights.)