Armed Conflicts, Asia-Pacific, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

Impunity for Killers of Women in Strife-torn Kashmir

Athar Parvaiz

SRINAGAR, India, Mar 21 2011 (IPS) - Fracha Begam has been unable to come to terms with the deaths of her two teenage daughters, killed by unknown gunmen in the latest incident of violence against women in the Kashmir Valley.

“I want to know what crime my daughters had committed which warranted their brutal killing,” Begam demanded.

She never imagined her daughters – Akhtar, 18, and Arifa, 16 – would meet such a fate. Gunmen barged into their home one evening in early February, dragged the sisters out and shot them.

Police blamed the militant Lasker-e-Toiba (LeT) for the death of the sisters, who earned a living working in neighbours’ homes. The two were killed, the police said, because militants accused them of being police informers.

But LeT denied responsibility and accused the police of maligning their reputation.

These two killings are among thousands that have been attributed to unknown gunmen in Kashmir since Kashmiris started an armed struggle for independence from Indian rule in 1989.

During the more than two decades since, it has been women who have borne the brunt of the conflict, frequently falling victim to rape, torture, and killings.

Kashmir’s chief minister Omar Abdullah, a pro-India leader, has accused separatists of issuing a “muted condemnation statement” on the deaths of Akhtar and Arifa simply because the suspects were militants.

“Had there been any indication that these killings were the result of highhandedness of security forces, the whole Kashmir valley would have erupted in protest,” Abdullah said.

He was alluding to the mass protests the separatists spearheaded over the rape and murder of 17-year-old Asiya Jan and 22-year-old Neelofar in south Kashmir’s Shopian Township in 2009. The separatists had accused Indian security forces of involvement in that incident.

But social and political commentator Aijaz-ul-Haq cautioned both separatists and the pro-India leaders against “political classification of crime as ‘theirs’ and ‘ours’ to score petty political points.”

“When human dignity is wounded, let everyone’s flag fly at half mast,” he added. “What we have been witnessing in Kashmir is the polarisation of crime which is dangerously dividing human blood into two colours.”

Social activist Showkat Imran opines that ambiguity has to be removed and everyone has to be made accountable. “No act of violence should go unchallenged and unquestioned,” Imran said.

Aside from killings, Kashmiri women also face the problem of sexual violence. A study by the international non- governmental organisation Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) in 2005 revealed that sexual violence in conflict-hit Kashmir was even graver than in Sri Lanka or Sierra Leone, which had also been plagued by vicious civil wars.

“Sexual violence has been routinely perpetrated on Kashmiri women, with 11.6 percent of respondents saying they were victims of sexual abuse,” the study said.

Mushtaq Margood, a psychiatrist at Kashmir’s only psychiatric hospital, said women constitute more than 60 percent of the patients coming for treatment, with most of them suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The number could even be understated since not all women seek treatment because of social stigma attached to psychiatric diseases.

“They prefer to stay in their homes and suffer it silently rather than listening to the taunts of people,” Margood told IPS.

Justice continues to elude women victims of violence. A probe was ordered into the rape and murder of Asiya Jan and Neelofar, but their killers have yet to be identified. Separatists have accused government agencies of covering up for the culprits who, according to them, were Indian paramilitary troopers.

Akhtar and Arifa’s family has demanded a probe into their deaths, but so far none has been launched.

Neither have people come to visit her, said Fracha Begam, because her neighbors fear being the gunmen’s next target.

“Because of the same reason, the funeral prayers of my daughters were attended only by our close relatives,” Begam said.

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