COLUMN SERIES | A Transformative Change in Kashmir Through its Women

Right from 1947 Kashmir conflict has been started by men. But it is women who have suffered the most. It is the escalation of men-driven frenzy for which women had to pay a price. And somewhere in the thick of all this narrative, Kashmiri women have been relegated to obscurity. As if they don’t matter. They have wilted. That they don’t tell you is their generosity.

Any effort at restructuring the society warrants the needs of the women to be dealt with first. The most fundamental elements are access to healthcare, easy access to basic civic amenities, and availability of livelihood generation opportunities. In a place like Kashmir where we have water everywhere, why should women be seen protesting for a drop to drink?

If this has been going on for seven decades now; there certainly is a systemic failure – again men-driven. It doesn’t and shouldn’t take 70 years for a problem to be identified and fixed. And women should not be seen standing in a queue – their life and time are too precious to be wasted like this.

One of the fundamental areas that can improve the lives of women in Kashmir is to provide them good healthcare services. The current healthcare infrastructure appears to be grossly inadequate and quite not equipped to address the needs of women and children in far-flung rural areas. Statistics testify.

In JK UT the doctor-patient ratio is 1:3,666; far below WHO’s recommendation of 1:1,000. The UT has 47 percent female population but in the Valley where an estimated 28 gynecologists qualify each year, there is a disturbing shortage of specialists for maternity services. A 2017 report reveals that there were only 44 gynecologists to cater to the entire female population in the Valley. Maternal mortality remains high in rural than urban Kashmir.

A study on the number of maternity deaths between March 2009 to March 2018 revealed that the majority of deaths occurred in Baramulla district, followed by Anantnag, Pulwama, Bandipora, Budgam, Shopian, Srinagar, Kulgam and Ganderbal. Plugging these gaps in a phased manner is crucial to healthcare success.

The fear and paranoia of the past two decades have also created severe mental health issues for women and children. Domestic violence is also reported to be on the rise. A 2015 study revealed that nearly 45 percent of Kashmiris showed symptoms of one or other forms of mental illness – the highest 41 percent suffering from depression. Only 7 percent of 92 percent of mental illness patients seek help. And for a 7 million population there is only one mental health center. Healthcare infrastructure needs to be enhanced to meet this social exigency.

The next enablement for Kashmir women can come through entrepreneurship. This can be done through a bottom-up approach. Self Help Groups (SHGs) can initiate women into entrepreneurial activities at the grassroots. Every SHG can be aligned to a cluster which in turn can be linked to a district-level entity. The district-level entities can conjoin to a UT-level body at the helm which can serve as its nerve center.

Well-structured entrepreneurship can support women to become partners in the sustainable development of the Valley and also contain the unwanted influences of middlemen and contractors. There can be NGOization of women in Kashmir by picking up selective sectors in which they would be expected to do well. In recent times, the two most popular women-driven initiatives can be taken as an example – Chipko Movement and Amul. If Amul could change the lives of women in Gujarat, why can’t a similar movement change lives of women in Kashmir?

A structural change in the lives of women can be brought about only when we can capture the aspirations of women at the grassroots. Every women-centric initiative can be begun at the village-level women collective. A well-designed structure can not only help the government to capture their aspirations directly but also link them directly to the policies and government initiatives. Fundamental transformation can only be expected by enabling the intrinsic motivation of women, not extrinsic policies.

The existing block development officers, panches, and sarpanches can be used to complement government initiatives as data collectors. Women in one region may wish to rear trout fish, whereas in the other region they might find it easy to grown snow mountain garlic. One solution must not be expected to fit all.

Once the aspirations are captured we can plug in other actors to enable this change. For instance, in driving entrepreneurship through SHGs and clusters, rural banks can help finance projects. The success of micro-finance in transforming the fates of millions in the grassroots rural areas of Bangladesh is now a well-known phenomenon.

Female education is another critical area. The 2011 census shows that the overall literacy of the state is 68.74 percent where the literacy of males is 78.26 percent and that of females is 56.43 percent. Some recent studies have pointed out that some of the reasons for the gender disparity in Jammu and Kashmir have been poverty, lack of female teachers, poor infrastructure, amongst others.

The 2011 census clearly shows that the Kashmir Valley lags behind the Jammu region in the female literacy rate. The UT government can ensure that the primary and secondary schools in Kashmir are equipped with the basic infrastructure and resources to enable the girl child’s education. To begin with, schools can be upgraded to provide three basic changes –toilets for girls, safe drinking water, and the employment of female teachers.

The need of the hour is to bring about some robust structural and functional changes to benefit women in the UT. The police forces, for instance, should now be trained to promptly respond to the crime against women and children. Women police stations, set up in all districts and tehsils, can help women get prompt redressal. Counsellors can be deployed in tehsils and districts to help the distressed.

The central government’s Ministry of Women and Child Development can play a crucial role in this transformation. The ministry can help design and deploy well-planned strategies that can help empower Kashmiri women across its urban and rural centers in ways never seen before.

The ministry can examine the status of its current programs in the UT and try to roll out new schemes that can alleviate the myriad issues related to women and the girl child. Women volunteers can be formed for the wider reach and stronger grassroots connect.

Kashmiri women will need the support mechanism to become change. They can be genuine partners to bring about a positive socioeconomic transformation like never before. Happy women make for happy families that in turn can alter the narrative of the region. Kashmir’s women can be powerful agents of change and begetters of a brighter tomorrow.

Dr Sanjay Parva is a Kashmir-born writer and thinker and Dr Asim Chowdhury an academic and independent researcher.