Crafting New Lives in Kashmir's Conflict Zone

Nighat Shafi Pandit explains conflict precisely: "When two parties do not agree with the views of each other, it creates a conflict. A conflict always starts at home and then spreads in society."

Living in Kashmir, where ordinary citizens have been caught in the spiral of violence between militants and the army, it is striking that the activist uses words like family, home and disputes to explain conflict. But then for women, the personal is always political. And that is why Pandit's response is without jargon and academic terminology.

Pandit does not represent the common woman of Kashmir whose voice we usually hear - the economically underprivileged, the rural woman, the 'half-widow' or the one who has lost her husband or son to militancy. In fact, both her father and husband are senior bureaucrats. She has mostly led a comfortable life. Yet, when the Kashmir conflict was growing apace in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the violence became personal. Mohamed Shafi Pandit, her husband and Chairperson of the State Public Service Commission, was an automatic target for militants. Threats to her children were common. Following specific threats to her daughter, her family was given Border Security Force protection. Even her son had to be sent abroad.

Then, when militants attacked her husband, they moved to Delhi. The family returned only in 1997 when insurgency was waning. But the homecoming changed Pandit's life forever. When she saw the widespread devastation and despair, she knew she had her work was cut out for the future. "I decided that I had to do something about the situation. So I called some friends and we set up Human Effort for Love and Peace (HELP)," she recalls.

In Kashmir, there are an estimated 30,000 women, who have lost their husbands in "militancy related activities", while and 20,000 children have been orphaned. (The State Women's Commission's unofficial figure is 40,000 widows, while unofficially the Public Commission on Human Rights puts the number at 25,000-30,000). Today, if Tasleema, a widow and mother of three, is able to earn a decent living and send her two children to school, it's all thanks to Pandit.

HELP started small. "We began with a school for children of fishermen in one of the backwaters of the Dal Lake," says Pandit. Then the Shehjar orphanage was built in 1998, with eight children as the first housemates. Now, the number has risen to 35. Here, not only are the kids provided with shelter, meals and an education, they are encouraged to participate in extra-curricular activities that help heal the trauma of living in a conflict zone.

Children in Kashmir live in very harsh circumstances and it affects their lives in ways that not many can even begin to imagine. Recalls Nighat, "Once, we saw two boys playing. They had tied a third child and were trying to hang him. They had seen this happen in their own homes and were playing it out. It is really tragic to see how children's minds have been affected."

Along with children, women have been the worst victims of the violence that has crippled the people of Jammu and Kashmir for almost two decades. Women constitute 48 per cent of the Valley's voters, and the literacy rate is about 32 per cent. With conflict claiming the lives of hundreds of men, more women are being compelled to become the breadwinners of their families, despite lacking the skills for it. Responding to this predicament, HELP started a special economic rehabilitation programme. "We realized that the women have nothing to sustain themselves with. I have been to villages in Kupwara where one can find three to four widows in one home alone. I know of women who never knew their husbands were militants," she says.

Six training centres have been established across the Valley - in Kulgam, Sitaharan, Kupwara, Handwara and in Srinagar - that impart training in embroidery and weaving and also extend interest-free loans to women to set up their own small groups. "My aim is to ensure that these women are not reduced to begging. And they are not exploited," says Pandit.

The women who enroll in the programme are divided into groups on the basis of their skills. The ones with good kitchen skills grind masalas and make jams and pickles, while those proficient in embroidery and traditional handicrafts make items like handcrafted woolen wall hangings and chiffon saris embellished with Kashmiri embroidery. All the handmade stuff is later sold in Shehjar Bazaar, which is owned by HELP and at exhibitions, which are periodically held in Kashmir and Jammu. The proceeds from the sales are shared with the women and also used to further HELP's work.

So far, 150 families have benefited from the initiative and with funding from the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, 40 women-headed households in Kupwara have been given livestock like chickens, cows and sheep to set up their own poultry farms. They are now self-sufficient.

The organization has also branched out in to various other activities - education for visually challenged children, rendering assistance to other educational institutions, establishing a library for the elderly, conducting medical camps, and holding trauma counseling programmes, seminars and workshops. Next on their agenda is the establishment of a maternity home in Durhama, on the outskirts of Srinagar.

Of course, achieving all this was not easy. People in the rural areas did not know Pandit and they were curious as to why an urban woman was visiting them and why she was interested in their well being. Being a bureaucrat's wife made the task tougher. Many concluded that she was there to make money or was just another agent of the government. Once, she visited a group of women in Ganderbal, whose husbands were surrendered militants who had eventually been killed by other militants. Irked that the administration had not provided them with security when their husbands had surrendered, they objected to her visit as they thought she was a government representative. After patiently hearing them out, Pandit finally talked to them and after a lot of convincing gained their confidence. "It's always like that in the beginning. You have to go to the people; they will not come to you. You have to reach out to them and gain their trust," she says.

If winning the trust of the people was tough, another enormous challenge was the security concerns. "In the beginning people warned me not to move out. After all, my husband had been shot at by militants. But I had faith in God." And if there were challenges, then help was also forthcoming.

Most of the funding for HELP came from the people themselves, via donations. National and international foundations and trusts, like the European Commission, Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and the Sir Dorabjee Tata Trust, have also been forthcoming. Even the staff has sometimes worked without pay.

In a state that has witnessed violence in the name of freedom, Pandit offers no political solutions to the conflict; all she can do, she says, is to provide relief. Says Pandit, "Peace is truly prevalent when everybody can take care of their families and live in a respectable way. For me 'azadi' (freedom) is for all people, it is people's economic independence, their right to send their children to school and have them come back home safe, without being harassed by anyone."


More by :  Aditi Bhaduri

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