NEW DELHI: Women in war and conflict are the most affected, and yet the most neglected. In the decades of violence that Kashmir has been subjected to the plight of the women has been the most under-written, non-publicised issue not just outside the Valley, but within as well.

In these 100 days the women of Kashmir have been on a roller coaster of emotions, foremost of these being deep grief and worry about their sons , husbands and fathers.

It is this fear and insecurity---not anger as defined by the dictionary--that is now bringing them out on the streets in what they hope will serve as a protective shield for their men. More and more women are joining the men on the streets, at funeral processions which have also been targeted by the security forces, in protests---all in the hope that their presence will restrain the forces from firing at their menfolk.

Women running beside their men on the roads, women coming out in their mohallas to pelt stones, women sitting on dharnas are the new images of protest and protection merging with women crying inconsolably over the bodies of their young sons killed by the men in uniform, and women with worry writ large on their faces sitting patiently for days and nights besides their sons being treated for pellet injuries in hospitals.

The years of militancy in the 1990’s exposed the Kashmiri women to a trauma from which most have not recovered, and relive on a daily basis. It took over a decade for even the political leaders of India to become conversant with the phrase ‘half widows’ used in Kashmir to describe the hundreds of women whose husbands had ‘disappeared’ and the wives are still waiting, with no closure even now,25 years later.

Instead, currently, the women have been thrust back into the same atmosphere of fear and insecurity as their sons and grandsons now are back on the streets, being killed, ‘disappearing’ as they are picked up by the security forces, with their homes and lives in turmoil again.

The ‘half widows’ of Kashmir seems an easy word for a very difficult and even in many cases torturous existence. This writer has interviewed many of these women, old and young, who start crying even as they speak---the wounds as raw 15 years later---as their sentiments go through the range of “he will come back, he is alive, I am sure” to “at least ask them to tell us, just tell us whether my husband is alive or not.”

Tears stream down their cheeks as they speak of lives that only they have felt. They cannot begin life, as the wait is endless, and societal pressure such that picking up the threads becomes impossible. There is this young woman, with a little girl, whose husband was taken away “a lifetime ago” who had to return to her very poor parental home. The economic stress and burden is evident in the grim faces around, as the young woman says she cannot sleep, she gets depressed, and she cannot even see a future.

In another house is an old man with two little grandchildren. The little girl looks far older than her years, her little brother clutching on to her hand. The grandfather, eyes moist, speaks out his worry: “what will happen to them when I die, I just do not know. We have no money, we have no land, there is no other family who will look after them.” His son was taken away and ‘disappeared”. His son’s wife could take it no more and after an endless wait left to re-marry. She left her children behind as that was the condition imposed by her new husband. They have not seen her since.

In Kunan Poshpora, a little village in what was then even more a remote area than today, weep as they recount the ‘rape’ that is now a detail in the record books. Perhaps not even there. But while the rape has been written about---some insisting it never happened---for the women of this tiny village it has become a daily travail.Not just because there has been no justice, but also because the village has been branded by Kashmiris themselves as the rape village. A young boy told us how he left school a little distance away, as he was taunted by his school mates. Young girls could not find suitors, and instead of getting justice from the Army and the authorities, the women of Kunan Poshpara found that from victims they became the untoucjables of the area.

Domestic violence in Kashmir is on the rise as violence and economic deprivation subjugates the women even further within the household. Mental depression affects a majority of the women, some local sociologists place the figure at over 70%, but there are no corresponding medical facilities. Doctors in hospitals confirm that more and more women with suicidal tendences are coming in for help, but that the specialised help they need is not available outside the one hospital in Srinagar.

When the RSS and the ABVP men disrupted a meeting at Bengaluru organised by Amnesty International, India about the plight of families who were still searching for missing relatives, the focus effectively shifted to the Hindutva brand of nationalism. And there was not a camera then that captured the weeping women sitting on the side, who were reliving the trauma of the past 15 odd years when their respective relatives had gone missing. They were holding back their tears, stifling their sobs, and left the venue after the fracas clear that the justice they had travelled all the way in hope of, was certainly not going to be theirs.

Unfortunately, women’s organisations have left the Kashmiri women on their own. Except for a couple of piecemeal efforts, not a single woman’s organisation in India has worked to help women in perpetual conflict. Not a single national woman’s organisation has a state subsidiary, despite the fact that in the Valley the majority of women are in need of dire help.

The ‘first woman chief minister’ publicity given to Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti is clearly bereft of substance. Women are certainly not in her priority of her government.