KASHMIR: Kashmiri Women Bear the Brunt

Thursday, September 8, 2011
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Human Rights

Guns may have fallen silent in Indian-administered Kashmir but the fallout of the conflict, particularly on the health of the people, is showing up by the day. A recent study has indicated that the conflict is now taking its toll on the reproductive health of Kashmiri women; many of whom are unable to conceive. “Conflict-related stress may be responsible for triggering polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) among the Kashmiri women,” says the study by doctors from two leading government hospitals in Kashmir's summer capital Srinagar. PCOS is one of the major causes of infertility, prevalent at any age during the reproductive years. Symptoms include menstrual disturbances, abnormal male pattern hair growth and obesity. But because of the vagueness of the disease, it can take years to be diagnosed. Doctors estimate that 4-10 percent of Kashmiri women suffer from PCOS, and its prevalence in the Kashmir valley is much higher than in other states of India. “Among the 112 young and adolescent patients who were studied for PCOS, 65-70 percent had psychiatric disorders (triggered by stress),” said Dr Muhammad Ashraf Ganie, an endocrinologist who organized the study. And added “PCOS is considered to be the mother of all lifestyle disorders.” Since many women don't know they suffer from PCOS, doctors fear that actual number probably exceeds 10 percent. Doctors are also concerned over the high rate (20-25 percent) of Premature Ovarian Failure (POF) - commonly referred to as early menopause - among infertile Kashmiri women, which stands in stark contrast to India's national POF rate of 1-5 percent.

Impact of militarization

Previous studies have established a direct impact of the conflict on the population of Kashmir, where at least 70,000 people have died and around 8,000 men disappeared since the anti-India uprising in 1989. Nearly half of India's 1.2-million strong army remains deployed in Kashmir despite a sharp decline in violence, giving the Himalayan region an undesirable tag: the most militarized zone in the world. Clearly, the huge presence of military in a small valley with a population of 7 million has impacted almost every aspect of life in Kashmir—be it social, cultural, or educational. However, the impact of the conflict remains profound, on mental health as psychiatric disorders witnessed a sharp surge post-1989; after extra-judicial killings, custodial disappearances and illegal detentions became the order of the day in Kashmir. Even the rate of suicide (suicide is considered un-Islamic and the local Kashmiri language doesn't have a word for it) has gone up from 0.5 per 100,000 before the eruption of insurgency to 13 per 100,000 in 2011.

PTSD quite common

Before 1989, about 1,500 patients visited Kashmir's only psychiatric hospital in Srinagar, while Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – a major psychiatric disorder - was markedly absent. “(But) by the end of 2003,” after Indian troops employed brutal methods to crush the resistance, “we received around 50,000 patients annually,” Dr Arshad Hussain, a prominent psychiatrist, told “Islam Online.” In 2006, the number of patients visiting the psychiatric hospital rose to around 63,000. And by the end of 2008, it crossed the 100,000 mark. Most of the patients were women diagnosed with PTSD. Psychiatrists estimate that 15 percent of the population suffers from anxiety disorder. But the statistics represent only the tip of the iceberg. “We're sure that a large number of people don't visit psychiatrists because of a myriad of reasons, mainly the stigma associated with mental illness,” Dr Arshad said.

Women bear the brunt

It's the women, however—like in most other conflict zones across the world—who have borne the brunt of the decades-old conflict in Kashmir. The Kashmiri women have been killed, detained, tortured and even raped. “Indeed, rape has been used as a weapon of war by the military in Kashmir,” said an Indian academician Seema Kazi, the author of Between Democracy and Nation: Gender and Militarization in Kashmir. “The use of rape as a weapon of war has been documented, among others, by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International who note its frequent use as well as the difficulty in documenting cases many of which occur in remote rural areas,” Kazi told “Islam Online.” A 2005 study, for example, by Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, revealed an alarming rate of abortions and miscarriages among the Kashmiri women. Besides, one-third of the respondents, mostly women, were found to have symptoms of psychological distress “expressed through symptoms like nervousness, tiredness, being easily frightened and complaints of headaches.”

Zahir-ud-Din, a prominent journalist and human rights campaigner, told “Islam Online” that the deaths and enforced disappearances have left a large number of women to fend for themselves. He particularly referred to “half-widows” (women whose husbands vanished without a trace after their arrest) who can't inherit property till their husbands are declared dead. “Moreover, these unfortunate women have to wait for at least seven years before they can remarry. But surveys have found that most of them have chosen not to remarry,” said Zahir-ud-Din, whose book “Did they vanish into thin air?” first documented the disappeared people in 1996.

Improving the people's condition

According to Seema Kazi, there is a strong need for real democracy, justice and peace in Kashmir. “There is neither security nor justice for citizens in Kashmir. Such a state of affairs cannot, by any standards, be deemed ‘democratic'”. “Unless there is a positive change in the environment, the chances of improving the condition of the people remain quite bleak,” she said.