Trigger warning: mentions of physical abuse
By Bisma Bhat, Srinagar
The former head of the J&K women’s commission still receives complaints from women facing violence.
“Hello! I am calling from Saderkoot Payeen village. Afroza is dead! She has been killed by her in-laws. Come here quickly,” were the words of an unknown caller that shattered the silence of a calm, cold December morning for the Dar family of Laharwalpora village of north Kashmir’s Bandipora district.
The call was answered by Irfan Dar, son of Ghulam Mohammad Dar. The mobile phone fell from Irfan’s hands as his body began to shiver. “We need to rush to Afroza’s village. Something is wrong with her,” Irfan told his family.
“When we reached, we saw that a huge crowd had gathered outside Afroza’s in-laws’ house and police were already present on the spot. Afroza’s room was locked from the inside. With the help of the police, we managed to open the door, only to find her dead. Her face was brutally injured, and her neck was all red. Other than the lifeless body of our daughter, there was no one in the house,” said a relative of Afroza’s.
It was only in September last year that 22-year-old Afroza was married to Shabir, who was six years older than her. Within a week of the wedding, Shabir had allegedly beaten Afroza. On the tenth day, she was dropped at her father’s house and stayed there for over two months. On December 15, Shabir and his father were made to sign a bond by the Mohalla Committee promising that they will not harass Afroza again and saying that if they do, they would have to pay a huge fine.
However, only after six days of signing the bond, Shabir and Afroza had a scuffle following which Shabir allegedly strangled Afroza with her dupatta. Shabir then escaped from the window of their room.
Later, the Bandipora police arrested Shabir and his family members from different locations. “Shabir confessed his crime to the police. He told us that he murdered his wife after he lost his temper on a scuffle over her jewellery and mehar (the amount to be paid by the groom to the bride at the time of marriage). He also stated that his parents were unaware of the crime he has committed,” said a police official.
On the contrary, Afroza’s family alleged that Shabir was living in his father’s house and it is highly implausible that they were unaware of this gruesome act performed by their son.
As per Shabir’s relatives, he was a calm person until his father pressurised him into marrying Afroza against his wishes. “He had no interest in marrying Afroza and had communicated his sentiments quite vehemently to his father, but to no avail,” said Shabir’s cousin.
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Afroza is not the only victim of domestic violence in the Kashmir Valley. In several cases, women have been ruthlessly murdered by immediate family members.
The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) conducted by the Union Ministry of Health has exposed shocking facts about domestic violence against women in Jammu and Kashmir.
The survey report, released in 2020, claims that 9.6% of women in the age group 18-49 experienced domestic violence in 2019-20. Five years ago, when J&K was still a state, the survey says 9.4% of women were subjected to domestic violence. The survey further reveals that domestic abuse and sexual harassment is more widespread in rural areas of J&K as compared to urban areas.
“Around 11% of rural women between 18 and 49 years have witnessed domestic violence whereas in urban areas 5.9% of women have been victims of domestic violence in 2019-20. 5% of rural women of age group 18-29 have experienced sexual violence at the age of 18 while 1.4% of urban women have faced sexual violence at the age of 18,” the survey has found.
In 2019, after the Central government removed the special status of J&K granted under Article 370, and bifurcated the state into two union territories, many state-run commissions were abolished.
This included the State Commission for Women.
Over 18 months have passed, yet the J&K administration has not initiated the process for establishing the office of the National Commission for Women in Jammu and Kashmir. Since the women’s commission was the only government-run organisation protecting women against domestic violence, an increase in such cases has been reported in the erstwhile state.
Similar to Afroza’s, another incident was reported on January 18 in the Ladoora area of Rafiabad in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district, where a mother of three was found dead under mysterious circumstances.
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The family of 35-year-old Sameena (name changed), alleging that she was killed by her in-laws as they had observed scratches on her neck, face, legs and arms.
“Sameena’s in-laws and husband said that she died in the washroom while taking bath but when we saw her body, there were a lot of fresh marks on her neck and face. Blood was oozing out from the lower side of her head. We suspect that her in-laws have killed her,” Khurshid Ahmad, her elder brother, said.
For the last 18 years, Khurshid alleged, his sister had undergone extreme torture from her in-laws and husband. “In these 18 years, she was beaten ruthlessly by her in-laws and was thrown out of the house on several occasions. After her marriage, she spent most of the time living in our father’s house as she dreaded returning to her in-laws due to their violent behaviour.”
Rafiabad police have done a post-mortem of Sameena’s body but the report has not come yet. “Post-mortem report takes time. We are doing an investigation under Section 174 of CRPC. We have summoned her in-laws for questioning. However, we will be able to make any arrests only after the post-mortem report,” said a police official, requesting anonymity.
Even as the women’s commission stands disbanded, the former chairperson of the J&K State Commission for Women, Vasundhara Pathak Masoodi, continues to receive complaints from distressed women through emails, calls and messages.
“On an average, I receive around 5-10 complaints in a day. I received complaints from women who not only have been victims of domestic violence but also sexual harassment, child abuse, medical negligence and gender-based violence,” said Masoodi, who is currently a senior lawyer at the Supreme Court.
She believes that women belonging to the rural areas who are socially and economically disadvantaged are more prone to gender-based violence because these areas are not easily accessible.
In October 2017, the government of J&K had launched a women’s helpline number (181) to provide round-the-clock assistance to women in distress. According to the data provided by WHL181, a total of 922 cases have been registered between April and September 2020, which include 619 cases of domestic violence, five cases of POCSO and sexual violence, 47 cases of cybercrime and obscene calls, and 251 cases under other categories.
A total of 3,376 cases were registered from October 2017 till December 2020. In the first three months after launching the helpline, 34 cases were registered in J&K. In 2018, the helpline registered 886 cases.
However, in 2019, a slight decline was seen in the number of cases registered with 181. A total of 856 cases were reported in 2019. In August 2019, J&K was put under a complete communication blockade including mobile connectivity for approximately five months, after Article 370 being read down.
In 2020, the total number of cases registered was 1,600, reflecting how the national lockdown to contain the COVID-19 pandemic made women more vulnerable to acts of violence within their houses.
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A look at the three-year data reveals that crimes against women have increased more in Kashmir as compared to Jammu and Ladakh. A total of 1,756 cases have been registered in Kashmir, followed by Jammu that reported 1,570 cases of domestic violence. In Ladakh, 44 cases of domestic violence and six other category cases have been registered in the last three years.
Purnima Dhar, manager at 181 WHL, said that on average, her team registers 10 cases every day. “WHL has been working quite efficiently against the violence committed on women. We provide counselling, medical-legal assistance, and shelter if needed to the victim and make sure that the accused should get punished according to the law,” Purnima said.
While dealing with cases of violence against women, Purnima has observed that there is only a small number of judges available to deal with women-related cases.
“It is very unfortunate that there are not many judges available, due to which it takes a long time to get the accused punished. There is nothing done on the fast track. After the Nirbhaya case, we heard that such cases will be fast-tracked but even the verdict for the Nirbhaya case was announced after eight long years,” she added.
(This article has been written as part of Sanjoy Ghose Media Awards 2020. The article was first published in The Wire)