Why is Women’s Safety Always a ‘Secondary Issue’ in Conflict Areas?

“A mother of two children, who was allegedly set ablaze by her in-laws in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, succumbed at a hospital in Srinagar on Thursday,” read an official report in a local newspaper.

Another headline read: “Anantnag woman allegedly set ablaze by in-law dies at SMHS Hospital.”

What these reports and headlines fail to highlight is this: that the mother of two children was not only a mother. She was a woman. A woman who lived in a region ridden with political conflict. Further, observe the euphemistic use of the word “dies” when she was in fact set ablaze, which in all probability falls under attempt to “murder”.

While the news culminated in a local protest, incidents of such kind highlight various issues. First, a police case was only registered when the woman had to be admitted to a local hospital with grave injuries. It is only then that a few ground workers came to know about the incident and decide to pursue it further. According to a member of one such group, Education and Livelihood for All (EFLA), Farah Zaidee, the initial FIR filed in this case labelled the incident as “attempt to suicide”. However, the case was referred for further investigation only after the local protests. Since this incident, a series of similar cases have been reported from the same area. Given the nature of the issue, one is therefore forced to ask: what purpose does a police investigation serve when a life has already been lost?

Studies show that the state institutions are far from being sensitively equipped to handle such issues. Cases of domestic violence and general violence against women surged tenfold to more than 3,000 a year during a previous clampdown in 2016 and 2017, according to statistics from the Jammu and Kashmir State Commission for Women, a now-defunct government institution. In 2019, after the Central government revoked Article 370 in J&K, many state-run commissions, including the State Commission for Women, were abolished. Over 18 months have passed, yet the administration has not initiated the process for establishing the office of the National Commission for Women in Jammu and Kashmir. The situation has only worsened during the pandemic. On top of that, there is only one women’s police station in the entire valley.

Secondly, while the locals demanded action against the perpetrators of violence, only few have questioned the structure that fuels this kind of violence. The patriarchal structure is the one to be blamed, but only few are ready to concede the same. It becomes all the more essential to address the issue in the valley which is already ridden with political conflict and turmoil for ages.

Also read: Where Are the Women in the Narrative of Violence?

Thirdly, while compensation is demanded through protests and conventionally promised in such cases, one is forced to wonder – compensation for what and to what end? If one is to go by The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) conducted by the Union Ministry of Health, it has exposed shocking facts about domestic violence against women in J&K. 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. It is also difficult to not situate such incidents in the larger matrix of conflict, for various reasons, and hence de-linking the two should be done with some caution.

It is no new revelation that in conflict-ridden regions or during a political upheaval, women suffer doubly. First, due to the consequences of the turmoil; second, the brutalities in form of rapes, molestation and sexual harassment which go mostly go unreported. There are many examples in our history to substantiate this. However, there is another pivotal facet which has been overlooked. In regions such as J&K, even during intervals of relative stability (not peace), women continue to suffer in myriad ways because of one major reason: their problems are sidelined in the face of the conflict.

When the media is occupied with covering the conflict, and when the collective energy is invested in dealing with the situation of crisis, it is unlikely that other issues – regardless of its magnanimity – will receive the attention it deserves. Additionally, issues related to women-safety are anyways considered of secondary importance globally.

Further, since these regions are politically volatile and anything can happen any time, there is little scope for self criticism. There is a reluctance to look within. Conflict-fatigue could be one reason for this state of denial, but this also begs a question: isn’t it essential to also talk about issues not directly linked to the conflict? Violence against women isn’t something that can be deferred till we resolve the political conflict. Women are being forced to take their lives (read murdered) or are killed, tortured, rendered homeless, assaulted and raped. How can these issues be ignored?

On social media, whenever someone tries to write about violence against women, their arguments are conveniently brushed aside with a response which is something like, ‘if a society follows x or y religion, in letter and spirit, then women will be safe from violence’. You’d find many such responses on almost everything on social media, perhaps because we live in a society where religion is a intrinsic part of everyday lives. Given the times we live in, it needs to be asked that do we again have the time to wait till everyone becomes virtuous, standing on some moral pedestal, to guarantee the security of women?

Attitude of such kinds are equally responsible in making women and their issues the concern for the ‘seconds’ – be it second in households, the second sex itself, the second-best at work. To be primarily treated as human (something as basic as that), has not been manifested in the state or the society’s approach towards the issues of gender discrimination and violence. While that has been the case across the globe, this only worsens as the variable of ‘conflict’ engulfs the roots of politics in societies where political conflict is a lived reality. Having said that, collective denial will never be a solution for this issue, we are sure.

Sana Shah and Aishwarya Bhattacharyya are currently pursuing research at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Featured image credit: Flickr/@Patrick McDonald