Thursday, June 17, 2010

Kashmir's Silent, Sorrowful Widows

SRINAGAR: In Kashmir, subject of a long-drawn dispute between India and Pakistan, 10,000 widows reportedly live in reclusiveness, while some unconfirmed sources say the figure could be three times more as many fear exposing their status due to the social stigma attached to being a widow.
Heart-wrenching stories are all alike around Kashmir - mothers wailing over their dead sons or wives mourning over their husbands killed, and wandering forlorn fatherless children - all because the head of the family or the male offspring has been killed by government security forces or armed separatist militants. In remote southern Kashmir, about 50km away from the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) capital of Srinagar, dozens of widows live in poverty, depression and fear which haunts them of the past violence that messed up their once-peaceful rural existence.
Shareefa (not her real name), 35, lives with her four teenage children and her 89-year-old mother-in-law in Dabrun village, about three kilometres from Anantnag, in southern Kashmir, a place also labelled as the "land of widows" among the locals. Shareefa is a widow. "They (the army) accused him (her husband) of ferrying militants. Our whole family was arrested. They wanted a big ransom and even verbally abused our daughters. So, my husband joined the militants out of anger. He was killed in a gun battle with the forces," said Shareefa, relating her story. Almost seven years after losing her husband, Shareefa remains unmarried, just for the sake of her school-going children whom she supports by toiling away at menial jobs around her remote village. It is mid-summer noon in Shareefa's village, once a hotbed for militancy. There is a strange eerie silence around the surrounding houses, mostly walled by concrete bricks, as families tend to huddle among themselves, even though militancy is on the wane now.
Inside a low-roofed typical Kashmiri brick house, a family of three graduate sisters and their widowed mother are still trying to reconcile with their ill-fated past, after having lost their father, the family's sole breadwinner, about a decade ago.
"My father worked as a tailor in this village. During a morning army operation he was picked up because he had a long beard. And about 3pm, we received his dead body," recounted Najmag (not her real name), an unemployed commerce graduate, the second daughter in the family.
Now, she has to compete along with 700,000 jobless people in Kashmir, another socio-economic chaos due to the prolonged political crisis, which has damaged the region's economy.
In an adjacent impoverished village, Rafiqa (not her real name), another widow, lives with horrific memories of her husband's death during the height of the militancy. Even her older son quivers when he speaks about that fateful and horrifying night. "Unidentified men came to my house and took my husband away. Two days later, he was found killed in the forest, about 10km away from our house," said Rafiqa, with a sadness clearly visible in her tear-glistened hazel-coloured eyes. She is only in her 30s. "His death took away our happiness. Even seven years later, I still have panic attacks at night. My father asked me to remarry but I refused because of my four children," said Rafiqa, who poured out her sufferings in her native Kashmiri language.
Last month, Rafiqa, who shares her father's ramshackle home, managed to secure a job as an office assistant in the nearby district office. That will pay her about RM100 a month and augment her paltry family's kitty, to which her 16-year-old son, who was forced to leave school due to poverty, also contributes from his earnings as a casual worker.
As outcasts in a traditional and conservative society, the financially-ruined widows have been prone to suffer from psychological disorder, a serious health predicament that has gone unnoticed for years in rural villages, as social workers say. "Many widows, who receive little emotional support, have lived with depression for the past eight to 10 years after the death of their husbands. They have severe symptoms that have gone untreated.
"Most of them depend on their families and in-laws. They live depressing lives and never remarry. Neither do they have access to mental health care," said Nasir Amin, a psycho-social counsellor with Action Aid Network, who makes regular visits to these rural villages.
The painful voices of the widows and their children would astound any right-thinking person, yet their plight is hardly heard of in the outside world, perhaps drowned out by the harsh cold winds of the Himalayan mountains.

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