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Hilal Her

Mental Health Crisis Among Women of IIOJK

February 2023

War and conflict-ridden areas are the breeding grounds for people’s debilitating wellbeing. Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) has sadly been one of those regions for decades. The trauma of living under oppression and continued violence is a cause of distress for the innocent lives with women bearing the brunt of it. Violence against women is a severe and pervasive problem in IIOJK, which has a long history of conflict and political instability that has contributed to a culture of violence and abuse towards women as Indian strategy to subjugate Kashmiris and subvert their efforts for freedom.
Sexual violence against women, including rape and sexual assault, is a major issue in IIOJK. The Indian state machinery in the occupied territory uses sexual violence as a tool of war, political repression, etc. In the context of conflict, women and girls are often targeted to demoralize and punish entire communities. This has been an ongoing issue in IIOJK for decades, with Indian forces being accused of committing these crimes with impunity. The lack of accountability only perpetuates the vicious cycle of violence and abuse. The psychological impact of sexual violence on women in IIOJK can be severe and lasting. Sexual violence can cause various emotional and mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other trauma-related disorders.
A report published by United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in 2020 found that violence against women in Indian administered Kashmir was linked to various adverse outcomes, including poor mental health, reduced educational and economic opportunities, and social isolation. Victims of sexual violence may also experience a range of physical symptoms, including sleep disturbances, headaches, stomach problems, and changes in appetite. They may also struggle with issues of self-esteem and self-worth and may feel shame, guilt, and the blame for the violence perpetrated against them.
In the aftermath of sexual violence, women may also face social stigma and isolation. They may be ostracized by their families and the affected may struggle to find support and understanding. This can compound the psychological impact of the violence and make it even more difficult for women to recover and move on with their lives.
In addition to domestic and sexual violence, women in Kashmir face other forms of discrimination and abuse. This includes discrimination in the workplace, lack of access to education and healthcare. Gender discrimination makes it worse for the Kashmiri women on both material and psychological fronts.
The forced disappearance of Kashmiri men has had a significant impact on the mental health of women in IIOJK. The uncertainty and fear that results from not knowing the whereabouts or fate of a loved one can lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. The loss of a family member can also lead to feelings of isolation in addition to anxiety about financial matters since in most cases the male members of the family are the breadwinners.
Furthermore, the ongoing conflict and violence in the region have also contributed to a general climate of fear and consternation. These factors have negatively impacted the mental health of many individuals in the area, including women.
Research indicates that the disappearance of a significant other or a loved one coupled with an environment of conflict is closely related to developing complicated grief and PTSD. Women in the region are living in fear of losing their loved ones to abduction and state terrorism. This state of uncertainty and anxiety very often takes over their lives. Over the years, in IIOJK a number of graves have been found, unmarked with mutilated and tortured bodies, leaving the survivors searching for answers. Losing someone to disappearance not only creates grief, leads to unprocessed loss, and a lack of closure but also keeps an individual in a constant state of hope alternating with hopelessness.    
Living in a war zone for extended periods leads people’s brains to stay in an emergency and unsafe mode. A mental illness prevalence study by OCHA in Kashmir pointed out that about 45% of Kashmiri adults experience some kind of mental illness, with 41% with probable depression, 26% with potential anxiety and 19% with probable PTSD. The research indicated that women above the age of 55 and being widowed or separated are at a greater risk of being affected. According to the study, the number of traumatic events these individuals experienced made them more vulnerable to developing mental health issues. The statistics are alarming and bring our attention to the suffering of women in Kashmir. 
Efforts to address violence against women in Kashmir have been limited, whereas the problem remains widespread. Victims do not feel safe reporting their experiences to the authorities as the methodical nature of violence and lack of accountability of the perpetrators leaves them in no doubt that it is state mandated and there is no chance for them to get any justice or redress. The justice system in IIOJK is also often biased against women, with victims of sexual violence being blamed and stigmatized rather than supported and protected.

The Kashmir Institute of International Relations (KIIR) report titled, “Mental Health in Occupied Jammu and Kashmir” talks about the physical and mental health of young women being adversely affected due to the stress brought on by the continuous ongoing conflict in IIOJK.
One of the stories cited in KIIR is of Ishtiyaq Ahmad Khanday,15,who was slain by the Indian Army in Anantnag on June 29, 2010, inside a compound. Since then, his mother Jameela Banu has been unable to sleep by herself in her home alone as she witnessed her son’s death eleven years ago. She walks through the house all day, continuously locking and unlocking windows and doors. In Srinagar, the capital of Indian-run Kashmir, her husband, Ghulam Ahmad Khanday, escorted her to a number of medical facilities before bringing her to a psychiatric facility. She is still receiving treatment for her depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In an interview to KIIR, Jameela Banu said that “I cannot close my eyes without envisioning the face of my son.”
Research studies have consistently shown that violence against women is a grave problem in IIOJK, with high levels of sexual assault by military and paramilitary forces being reported. Addressing this issue requires a multifaceted approach that involves the Indian government to conform to the universal ethical and moral standards, and the civil society and international community taking responsibility of standing up for the victims of the worse kind of state terrorism by Indian forces and compelling India to stop its brutal treatment of the women of IIOJK. The international community has a responsibility to support efforts to address violence and hold India accountable for the atrocities against the Kashmiri people. The Indian government must be asked to protect women and girls’ rights and hold the perpetrators of violence accountable. This can include passing and enforcing laws that criminalize violence against women, establishing shelters and other services for victims, provision of training for law enforcement and judicial officials on how to handle cases of violence against women instead of it all being sponsored by the state. Civil society organizations can play a crucial role in raising voice about violence against women and supporting victims since the Indian government won’t. HH

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