SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir — In conflict zones worldwide sexual violence has become a tactic of choice – it’s cheaper, more destructive and easier to get away with than other methods of warfare.
Indian-administered Kashmir has some of the lowest official numbers of reported sexual assault and harassment cases in the region. But this does not indicate the actual number of violent sexual crimes against women. Women in Kashmir are now facing a rising inner crisis, how to speak up publicly and in court when violence occurs to them personally. Most women who have suffered from sexual assault often fear retribution by government authorities, police or their attackers.
Saira Bano, a resident of Bijbehara 40 kms South of Kashmir, is a case in point. Bano was tragically raped by a group of soldiers in her village only six days after her marriage. After the incident her husband refused to accept her back in their home at first. A year later after Saira returned home she claimed to being treated poorly by her husband and beaten often.
“Women in Kashmir do not report rape due to the fear of reprisals,” says Khurram Pervez, Coordinator of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Services, an independent rights group operating in JK. “They lack faith in the existing institutions of justice and due to the social stigma,” he added.
Marriage of raped women is non-existent in Kashmir. Once they have been raped a woman’s life, as she knew it before, is often changed forever as they face an ongoing string of public taunts and loss of respect. Not only is the life of a raped woman affected harshly; the stigma casts a shadow on a raped woman’s sisters and daughters, as men shy away from marrying even a victim’s siblings.
Many who originally spoke out now prefer to stay silent about the violence to keep them from being further targeted as ‘raped women.’ Even human rights organizations may have caused negative attention to come to the women.
“The village elders say being interviewed by journalists, human rights activists, and filmmakers from across the world has brought only disrepute to the village and its women instead of redemption,” said Srinagar, Kashmiri journalist Majid Maqbool in June 2011.
Former Chief Justice Farooqi, who interviewed 53 women who claimed to being raped, offered his support to the women in Kunan Poshpora in 1991 when he said that he had “never seen a case in which normal investigative procedures were ignored as they were in this one.”
One of the most infamous Kashmir cases of violence against women under conflict situations, documented by UNHCR RefWorld through Asia Watch, included excerpts from the 1991 report, “Kashmir Under Seige.” The report outlines the extreme conditions of hardship and corruption that occurred from the beginning of 1990 in crimes against humanity that included 200 documented cases of extrajudicial executions of civilians and militants by suspected paramilitary in the region.
As paramilitary forces rounded-up and removed men for interrogation from their homes in the village of Kunan Pospora in Dupwar district 60 kms north of Kashmir, soldiers from the 4th Rajputana Rifles division allegedly asked mothers, wives, aunts, daughters and children to stay in their homes. During the military operation, sexual violence and gang rape against what villagers claimed was 100 women, one as old as 80 years old, were reported
But the military denied this claim.
Following the event 53 women were interviewed by the office of former Chief Justice Mufti Bahauddin Farooqi (then chief justice of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court). Official allegations of severe violence and rape were made against the soldiers while the village women, without their men, were forced to stay in their homes. But their reports did not go very far with Indian officials.
The Press Council of India (PCI) with veteran Indian journalist B.S. Verghese was asked to write a report on the incident. In the process Verghese said he spoke to the local media, the district magistrate, police and military officers, families of the rape victims, as well as doctors who examined the injured women.
One respected human rights group also contacted Verghese himself to deliver a video showing women victims who were video taped retelling their excruciating experiences.
In the end the PCI report, amid local and global controversy, completely denied that any crime occurred at all during the event at Konan Poshpora calling it a “massive hoax.”
Verghese in his book “First Draft” outlined his assessment of the situation: “Apart from the glaring gaps and contradictions in the evidence, the video recording carefully staged two to three months after the alleged event, had obviously been made for propaganda purposes. Our committee concluded that the reports of human rights excesses investigated by it had been grossly exaggerated or invented,” he said. Later in an interview about his writings he explained the book was a collection of stores he had written “at that time,” sharing that the report was “a worm’s eye-view of history as an individual saw it.”
But there have been expert doubts in credibility in India media and the PCI report. Teresa Joseph with the South Asia Forum for Human Rights described the PCI report as “Another instance of the Indian press’ selective reporting on Kashmir” in a recent detailed analysis of India’s media coverage of atrocities.
But what about the women? And what about their suffering?
A 1994 study carried out by the Kashmiri Women’s Initiative for Peace and Disarmament (KWIPD), found that families of rape victims at Kunan Poshpora did not show much empathy toward the women who had suffered rape; families even at times exhibited resentment against a rape survivor’s suffering.
“I had begged before my husband to forgive me for the sin that I never committed. But, he refused to accept me saying that I was ‘unclean,’ whether by choice or by imposition,” said one of the victims from Kunan Poshpora.
For 3 years after the incident, not a single marriage proposal had been received for any woman, raped or not, in Kunan Poshpora village revealed the Women’s Initiative (KWIPD).
Women who have been raped often experience symptoms similar to those who have experienced war stress. Trauma, hopelessness and depression for months, years and even decades can continue after a severe sexual assault has occurred.
Today teenage girls in Kashmir are in a strong grip with a fear of violence. Prominent sociologist Professor Bashir Ahmad Dabla attributes this fear to the heavy presence of military in the region. “A sudden look at a trooper gives a shock to a woman,” Dabla says.
“Keeping an eye” on Kashmir, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Margot Wallstrom’s UN office is now collecting information suggesting that over the years “we have received reports from people in Kashmir about sexual violence.”
The harmful impact of rape violence and its long range in many years of psychological damage cannot be completely or easily measured though.
“We recommend the establishment of a special judicial authority making an independent and thorough inquiry into all allegations of human rights violations, including disappearances, custodial killings, rape, torture, including torture of prisoners, fake encounters, and all other cases related to excesses by security forces,” said an Independent People’s Tribunal organized by the Human Rights Law Network in February 2010.
In March 2011 demonstrations outside the United Nations building in Geneva brought voice to those who are still hoping for the Indian government to fully investigate the rape crimes of Kunan Poshpora village in Indian held Kashmir. To date those who are guilty have not been prosecuted for the alleged crimes that happened in Kunan Poshpora.
Other extreme cases of rape violence in 2009, known as the Shopian case, brought corruption and destruction of evidence to the case as a crimes forensic lab and security officers, including a district police chief and three other police officers, were suspended for obstructing justice and falsifying details in the case.
The case involved the murder and rape of 17-year-old Asiya Jan and her 22-year-old pregnant sister-in-law Neelofar Jan. As false reports were originally released by the corrupt authorities in an attempt to close the case before objective investigations could be made, public uproar and street protests broke out across in the town of Shopian and in the capital of Kashmir in Srinagar.
Admitting that the “full scale” of sexual crimes will never likely be known since many cases remain unreported, UN Special Representative Margot Wallstrom understands the social dynamic that causes women not to report rape. “It has become such a way of life in some conflict zones that many victims are simply too afraid to report it and you can understand that,” Wallstrom said recently.
Originally appeared in Thompson Reuters Foundation