Independent Appeal: Safe haven for women beaten and abused in Kashmir

For the past two decades, domestic violence has been a low priority in one of India's most troubled regions. But a bold initiative is now addressing the issue – bringing Hindus and Muslims together, reports Andy Buncombe

The woman who has accused her husband of beating her has a moon-shaped face and a gentle smile, but he insists she is controlled by an evil spirit. "I cannot take her back. She is under the influence of a djinni [a supernatural being]," says the husband. "But I have never beaten her."

His wife, Rafika, tries to staunch her tears, while gripping their six-year-old daughter. "No, he has hit me many times. I have gone to the police," she says. "Whenever I ask for money he gets angry. He beats me with his fists."

At this point, the man's father – also sitting in the room of the hearing – angrily gets to his feet. Not only is the woman controlled by a spirit, he shouts, before he is escorted out by officials, but it is a Hindu spirit. "We will be happy if she goes to the Imam [Muslim priest] to have it dealt with."

Few of the cases of marital dispute that come before the Commission for Women in Kashmir involve claims of supernatural power. Many, however, involve allegations of violence: of women being hit with sticks, with brooms and with fists.

For a long time in this troubled place, women had few places to turn to for help and few people to talk to. Amid a two-decades-old separatist insurgency that has claimed more than 70,000 lives, the issue of domestic violence was often considered much less of a priority. At the height of the violence, with people being killed or wounded almost every day at either at the hands of the militants or the security forces, women were told that they had to support their husbands, to keep quiet. How will it help things if you raise this issue? they were told by friends and relatives, many of them women. A spiralling addiction to drugs by many men made matters worse.

But slowly that is changing. Activists from both the Hindu and Muslim communities have come together to educate women about their rights and to spread a message of "no-tolerance" among the broader community. They have reached out to religious leaders, teachers and the media. They are also pressing for new anti-domestic violence legislation that will provide women with more legal protection.

"The domestic violence programme developed from a wider project to create a space in which women across the state could talk and feel safe," said Ashima Kaul, an activist whose work is funded by Peace Direct, one of the charities for which money is being raised by The Independent's Christmas appeal. "As the women started talking, something that emerged was that one thing that women from all areas of the state had in common – whether they were from Kashmir, Jammu or Ladakh, from both the Muslim or Hindu communities – was the issue of domestic violence."

This is a ground-breaking initiative, according to Peace Direct's programmes director Tom Gillhespy. "Mrs Kaul's project offers a unique opportunity to bring together both Muslim and Hindu communities," he says. "It is an entry point to building a wider peace between them."

Forty-five-year-old Zahida, from the town of Ganderbal, is also one of those whose case is being heard by the commission, which works closely with Mrs Kaul's organisation, Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace. After 25 years of marriage she wants a divorce, saying that her husband is controlling, prevents her from seeing her parents and beats her. Her husband, a pharmacist, denies the allegations.

"He has hurt me many times. He is not a good character," she says. "I have told my family about it but they expect me to put up with it and keep on with my married life. I want to go. I want a divorce."

Hafiza Muzaffar, the commission's secretary, says that as society changes so more women are feeling able to speak out about their experiences. They are also expecting more from their marriages, and from their husbands.

The commission now has the legal power to force people to attend the sessions and to give evidence under oath. If a man refuses to attend, the commission can dispatch the police to his house and force him to come.

But the activists working across Kashmir say they want more legal protection for the women of the state. Anti-domestic violence legislation that was passed elsewhere in the country has yet to be adopted by the authorities in Kashmir. After much lobbying, it is understood that a draft bill, that will provide additional residency rights and financial support to women suffering violence, is close to being finalised and activists hope it will become law in 2010.

Mrs Kaul's work to provide a voice for the women of Kashmir's various communities began in 2001. Her Hindu family had left Kashmir when she was a child as a result of death threats made to her father, a senior police officer. When she returned as an adult she found that many women, whose sons and husbands had been killed in the violence, had no contact with each other because they were from different faiths.

With the vast majority of Kashmiri Hindus, or Pandits, having fled the Kashmir Valley as the insurgency gathered pace in 1989, it was not an easy place for her to return to work as an activist. For the first two years, she did not use her family name. But as her work developed, Mrs Kaul felt able to acknowledge her Kashmiri roots – something that ultimately helped her.

"This conflict is described as a freedom struggle, but in fighting, everyone has lost their freedom – we are so scared of each other," she has written. "I want to open up safe spaces, where women can come together and all their voices can be heard."

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