Seven-year-old Laiza saw her mother for the last time in a video call as she lay on a hospital bed, her face completely unrecognizable and her body severely burnt.
After one glimpse, she threw away the phone as she couldn’t bear to see her mother in such a painful state.
Twenty-eight-year-old Shahzada, who hailed from Aishmuqam village in southern Kashmir’s Anantnag district, was married nine years ago in Makhoora village. Married life for her was never a smooth affair. On March 25 things took an ugly turn when her husband and in-laws allegedly set her on fire.
In a video testimony recorded from her hospital bed, Shahzada murmured that she was set ablaze using kerosene by her husband, mother-in-law and father-in-law.
She went on to say she had been subjected to domestic violence for years.
Nine days after the attack, Shahzada succumbed to her injuries, dying at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar city. She leaves behind her daughter and 18-month-old son Immad.
The incident triggered not only protests in her village, but also sparked public discussion on the often neglected issue of domestic violence in the conflict-torn region.
‘They are beasts!’
Back in her hometown of Aishmuqam, Shahzada’s two children now live with their maternal grandparents. In a constant state of shock and disbelief, her family grieves for their daugher and mother, who they describe as beautiful and brave.
“Her husband called us in the middle of the night and asked us to come to hospital, saying she set herself on fire. But we couldn’t believe it, we knew something was wrong,” her 60-year-old grieving mother told A woman’s perspective of the Kashmir conflict
She added that her daughter had regularly faced violence at the hands of her husband.
“When we reached the hospital, we saw her whole body had been burnt, just the skin on her feet was intact. For nine days, she battled death. She told us how they poured kerosene on her clothes and set her on fire with a matchstick.”
“[Shahzada] told us about the pain she felt when her skin burnt. They are beasts not humans,” her mother, who is now worried about the future of her two grandchildren, added.
Laiza and her brother were asleep when the incident occured. However, Laiza remembers her mother’s screams, which woke her up.
“She is in shock about what happened to her mother. In the evening, when we sit for dinner, she tells us that she wants to sleep with her mother in her grave. We want stern punishment for the culprits,” the grandmother added.
Domestic violence in India-administered Kashmir hasn’t received much public attention or media coverage, as families often tend to cover up such incidences due to widespread social stigma.
There is also the issue of a lack of women’s refuge centers.
Rising cases of domestic violence Over the past two years, gender-based violence has been on the rise in the conflict-stricken region, which has seen back-to-back lockdowns that have confined people to their homes.
In August 2019, the Indian government revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status and divided the region into two federally administered territories. To prevent backlash, New Delhi imposed a harsh lockdown and cut off communication links. Months later, it relaxed some of the
Will Kashmir’s young politicians bring hope to the region? Then in March 2020, authorities began enforcing another lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) conducted by India’s Health Ministry revealed worrying figures about the problem in the region. It concluded that in 2019-20, about 9.6% of Kashmiri women aged 18-49 experienced domestic violence.
On April 10, days after Shahzada was set on fire, another 32-year-old woman took her own life at her in-laws’ house in the same district. Her family accused her in-laws of cruelty and forcing her to harm herself.
Investigations into both cases are ongoing.
According to the figures released by a police helpline center in Srinagar, there has been an upward trend in distress calls from women facing domestic violence.
In 2019, the helpline received 55 calls, but in 2020, 177 calls came through. However, those numbers have increased further over the last three months, with over 120 distress calls made by women seeking help during this time.
Activists say hundreds of cases go unreported as victims fear coming forward and filing complaints with authorities.
Help for survivors While the police claim that there is a response system in place, it’s providing little help to women in need.
“There is an emergency response system in place for women in all police stations across the region. It is handled by women themselves. If there is extreme distress, then the police station concerned is informed to provide help. Then the further necessary legal course is taken,” a senior police official told
Cautious optimism over new ceasefire on Kashmir border Shazia Malik, professor of women’s studies at the University of Kashmir, told DW that many women suffer silently as their families try to cover up incidents of domestic violence.
“I think people cover it up; they associate family honor with it. Many women were also burnt and murdered brutally in the past,” she said.
“If it is murder or an extreme burning incident then it comes to our notice through the media. We don’t pay much attention to day-to-day abuse and violence. If violence is noticed from the first day, it will not reach this extent. Women have to suffer because they don’t have property rights or family support or financial independence,” she said, adding that the women lack organizational support as well.
“The cases are alarming. Women can’t approach police all the time because of the situation here. Women need some other approach in a dignified way and there needs to be strict domestic violence laws and a quick justice system.”
Ezabir Ali, a social activist based in the main city of Srinagar, told DW that “every woman in Kashmir has a story to tell but her lips are sealed due to family pressure and social stigma.”
“The fact is that there is hardly any support structure for women going through or facing violent intimate partner relationships. There are no shelters for women to walk out and stay safe. The Women’s Commission is a dead entity for many years now. Under these conditions, where do women go to seek help or support?”
This story first appeared on kashmirtracker.com