It’s getting too much for them
Salman Nizami on how oppression may be driving women in Kashmir to suicide at a rate far higher than in men, and the effect this is having on society there
EVEN THE poorest families in Kashmir have matchboxes and cooking fuel. The combination usually sustains life. But it can also be the makings of a horrifying escape from poverty, from abuse and from depression. The night before she burned herself, Azra Bano (name changed) took her children to her sister’s for a family party. All seemed well. Later it emerged that she had not brought a present, and a relative had chided her for it, said her son Maroof Ahmed. This small thing apparently broke her. Zahida, who was 45, the mother of six children and earned pitiably little cleaning houses, ended up with burns on nearly 60 per cent of her body at the SMHS hospital, Srinagar. Srinagar’s two main hospitals - SMHS and SKIMS - receive three to four such cases on an average a week. A large number of people, mostly from villages, don’t even reach the hospitals - they die on the way or in local health centres. The hospital records show that survival of people from rural areas is very low while those from Srinagar is higher. The main reason of course, is the lack of medical care and trained staff in rural hospitals and health centres. It takes hours for emergency patients to reach hospitals in Srinagar. As per the records, around 30 per cent people with cases of burning survive in hospitals. It is shameful here to admit to troubles at home, and mental illness often goes undiagnosed or untreated. Women in Kashmir have suffered enormously since the separatist struggle became violent in 1989-90. Like the women in other conflict zones, they have been raped, tortured, maimed and killed. A few of them were even jailed for years together. According to a study by the Medecins Sans Frontieres, Kashmiri women are among the worst sufferers of sexual violence in the world. “Sexual violence has been routinely perpetrated on Kashmiri women, with 11.6% of respondents saying they were victims of sexual abuse,” says the 2005 study, adding that the figure is much higher than that of Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka and Chechnya. A study by the Kashmir University’s Department of Sociology in 2002 revealed 90% of the estimated 10,000 Kashmiri war widows didn’t remarry despite provision of remarriage in Islam. Surveys have shown that more Kashmiri women commit suicide than men. Says prominent sociologist Bashir Ahmed Dabla, “Throughout the world, it’s found that suicide rates are highest among men and more intense in urban areas, but in the Valley the reverse is true.” He cited the raging conflict as the underlying factor. The most sinister burn cases are actually homicides masquerading as suicides, Said doctors, nurses and human rights workers. “We have two women here right now who were burnt by their mothers-in-law and husbands,” said the hospital’s surgeon Nadeem Ahmed. Engaged at sixteen and married at 18, Farzana Akther (name changed) resorted to setting herself on fire when her father-in-law belittled her, saying she was not brave enough to do so.
SHE WAS 20 and had endured beatings and abuse from her husband and his family. Defiant and depressed, she went into the yard. She handed her husband their nine-month-old daughter so the baby would not see her mother burning. Then she poured cooking fuel on herself. For a very few of the women who survive burnings, the experience helps them change their lives. Some work with lawyers and request a divorce; most do not. Many women mistakenly think death will be instant. Halima (name changed), 20, a patient in the hospital in January, said she considered jumping from a roof but worried she would only break her leg. If she set herself on fire, she said, “it would all be over”. The problem is grave amongst the widows also who, after losing their husbands, the sole earners of the family, had to single handedly run their households. The lack of financial and emotional support on part of the families and society has put these widows in peril. “Losing the sole earner of the family and a life partner brings disaster to women. The problems become serious when she is left with children, who are toddlers or teens. All off a sudden all the burden is put on her. She has to earn, support and bring up her children. The only thought of these pressures are too disturbing for any women,” says Nadeem of SMHS hospital. He added that women, who lose support from in-laws and have no support from parents either, fall prey to severe mental pressure, giving rise to depression. While some women are able to reside in their parents’ house, most are forced to live alone with their children. After losing a husband, she feels insecure. This feeling is augmented when her in-laws and sometimes even the parents are not in a condition to provide financial and emotional support. The burden of responsibilities all alone becomes a lifelong pressure to these women. Since most of the widows do not marry for different reasons, they are put under pressure all their life, which they do not share. When this stress is perpetuated for years it gives rise to depression and hence they set themselves on fire. In the hospital, Zahida rallied at first and her son Maroof Ahmed was encouraged, unaware of how difficult it is to survive such extensive burns. The greatest risk is sepsis, a deadly infection that generally starts in the second week after a burn and is hard to stop. Even badly burnt and infected patients can speak almost up to the hour of their death, often giving families false hope. “She was getting better,” her son insisted. But the infection had set in and the family couldn’t buy the antibiotics that could have helped her survive. Two weeks after his mother set herself on fire, Maroof stood by her bed as she stopped breathing.
Salman Nizami is a freelance journalist.