The Kashmiri NGO shielding women from gender-based violence
A month after Masrat (real identity withheld) went to her parent’s home – having been beaten up by her husband after confronting him over a suspected affair with his own cousin – Masrat's husband returned to see her, to have sex.
Masrat had spent nearly a year in a toxic marriage that made her feel “as if I was his maid”. She was spoken to only when she was required to carry out a household chore. When she had overstepped the boundary set by her husband, he told her “to either adjust or get divorced".
The choice would have been simple if Kashmiri society had been supportive of women walking out of abusive relationships. She had come to the brink of taking her own life, before Mehram, a small nonprofit by women, for women, gave her light at the end of the tunnel.
The non-profit Mehram assists women with abusive husbands emotionally, legally, and economically, while also financially supporting women and destitute families
A marriage, it is said in Kashmir, is a grave a woman must fit herself in. The protracted conflict in Kashmir, a disputed Himalayan region over which India and Pakistan have fought three wars, has shifted priorities for both government and the people.
Yet, at Mehram, Masrat found a space where she could finally open up to willing and considerate ears.
In Kashmir, already dogged by conservative values, women's freedom has been further skewed by the fears of an otherwise indifferent government capitalising on societal fault lines to score political brownie points.
This was how New Delhi justified its unilateral abrogation of the region’s limited autonomy and status as a state with local government in August 2019, citing its discriminatory attitude towards women. Since then, the road to justice has only gotten longer.
Besides India’s notoriously slow courts, the only other recourse for women – the State Commission for Protection of Women and Child Rights, commonly known as the State Commission for Women (SCW) – was instead shifted to New Delhi, nearly a thousand kilometres away, catering to millions of Indians across various union territories.
There were 270 cases pending before the state commission before it was abolished.
Vasundhra Pathak Masoodi, the last chairperson of the SCW, said that the role of the SCW was not limited to responding to distress calls but also take pre-emptive measures as a statutory body.
The SCW, she said, “helped women and children in many ways including hearing the cases or complaints and subjecting the cases to trial procedures, investigating the matters relating to constitutional and legal safeguards for women and children, taking up cases of violations of rights of women and children, and inspecting homes, jails, hospitals and other places where women and children were lodged or kept or imprisoned.”
Nearly two years after the closure of the commission, Masoodi, freed from official capacities, practices law in India's Supreme Court in New Delhi.
Yet, she said that her office continues to receive around ten complaints every month through phone calls, mail, personal messages and social media.
“We take up these matters with relevant authorities wherever it is warranted,” Masoodi said, but added that the process of informing the complainants about the closure of the SCW has been disheartening. She has been assuring complainants that the commission would be restored soon.
Meanwhile, abandoned by her husband – a government employee – without any financial support, Masrat has been unable to find a job, first because of the infamously arduous and restrictive August 2019 lockdown and then the subsequent lockdowns and economic slowdown due to outbreaks of Covid-19.
In the absence of government support, many women like Masrat are being supported by Mehram, founded by three Kashmiri women: Shehryar Khanum, 34, a businesswoman; Arshie Qureshi, 28, a research scholar; and Sabreen Malik, 31, a lawyer.
Many women avoid divorce, Qureshi said, fearing losing custody of their children, and economic distress. “Our effort is to create long term sustenance,” she said. “We provide them loans for setting up some small scale businesses through people.”
As Kashmir’s economic situation deteriorates, Qureshi said that there is an increase in cases where financial crunch becomes a factor for violence. “Families are actually breaking down because there is no money to sustain them,” she said. “If a man tells us that he is ready to pay the maintenance but he hasn’t been working for two years, how will we tell him to pay?”
Kashmir also lacks a shelter for women — as mandated by Indian law — who face domestic violence. Mehram has pitched in here as well. “It is very rare that parents actually provide emotional comfort to women,” she added. “Going to a court or police is considered blasphemous.”
As explained above, accessing the national commission for women almost impossible prior to its closure, as most women abused and abandoned by their husbands have been left destitute, Qureshi pointed out.
“You need a phone and an internet connection to file a case online. But how many women would be comfortable using that mode?” she said. “Also, there is a language barrier. Many women cannot speak in the Urdu language.”
For those who do manage to access the national commission, their complaints are simply rerouted to the local police. “When a woman files a complaint on the NCW helpline, the case is sent back to the local police station, with lengthy delays. So why would a woman not go directly to the local police station instead of approaching NCW?” Qureshi pointed out. “NCW has zero relevance here. And access will always be a challenge like this.”
In the public face of a three-decades-long counterinsurgency campaign, the police in Kashmir has been unable to rid itself of its outlook as a counterinsurgency force. Only recently, however, it has set up help desks for women at police stations.
"Many women in Kashmir need help, whether it's an SOS call, feeling threatened, the impact of militarization or the impact of conflict in general"
The non-profit Mehram assists women with abusive husbands emotionally, legally, and economically whilst also financially supporting women and destitute families.
Since its inception in July last year, Mehram has assisted about 124 women faced with domestic violence, six cases of blackmail, eight cases of harassment, and four cases of cheating husbands. Mehram also provides financial assistance on a regular basis to 45 families and on-need-basis to over 200 families, with extra provisions for wedding trousseau.
There is a downside to the NGO's essential work with victim-survivors, members of Mehram have felt an impact on their own mental health. “You have 18-year-old girls telling you that they have already had six to nine abortions,” said Khanum. “These are not normal experiences.”
The prevailing conflict has overshadowed other important issues including domestic violence and child sexual abuse, said Khanum. “Many women in Kashmir need help, whether it's an SOS call, feeling threatened, the impact of militarization or the impact of conflict in general,” said Khanum. “These are the main reasons why Mehram exists.”
Zenaira Bakhsh is a journalist based in Srinagar, Kashmir. She is a features writer at The Kashmir Walla, writing on health, gender, culture, and the conflict in Kashmir.
Follow her on Twitter: @Zenairaaa