Thousands of women in the disputed Indian region of Kashmir have seen their husbands literally disappear, leaving them bereft, grieving and struggling to survive in a society which shuns women left with no man to support them and their children.
For decades now, gunfire and grenades have been familiar backdrop for people living in Kashmir, a region ruled by India but also claimed by neighboring Pakistan.
But beyond the daily bloodshed and behind the headlines about the ongoing conflict, a large section of Kashmir’s female population has been suffering silently. It is thought that the husbands of more than 1,500 Kashmiri women have disappeared, condemning their wives to a life in limbo. Known as “half-widows”, they have been left in a male-dominated society with little government protection – because they cannot confirm whether their men are dead or alive.
Begum Jan lives in the mountains of Srinagar with her five children. Since her husband disappeared, she has been unable to hold down a steady job and has had to take her eldest children out of school and send them out to work to support the family.
“It has been seven long years and we still do not know where he is,” she laments.
“I have small children. I have to beg sometimes to feed them. Now that winter has arrived, they do not even have warm clothes and shoes,” she says.
The Indian government estimates the number of people who have gone missing in the past 20 years of the Kashmir conflict at 3-4,000. Victims’ groups say the true number is closer to around 8,000. While the government maintains that many of the disappeared have actually joined the insurgency, others believe thousands have been captured by Indian security forces.
After their husbands went missing, many “half-widows” were abandoned by their in-laws. Most of these women were living on property belonging to their husbands’ families, and surviving on ration cards provided in their husbands’ name. Social stigma means many believe it is unacceptable to re-marry or live with a male relative who might be able to help.
Most women say that it is the psychological and emotional trauma of not knowing where their loved one is that is the most difficult to bear.
Parveena Ahangar from the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons says it is mentally very disturbing.
“It is an intense and incurable disease like cancer. The woman who suffers from it, is always in a state of restlessness and panic,” she explains.
They plead that they just want answers, especially for their children, who are constant reminders of their missing partners.
Begum Jan says her children were very small when their father disappeared.
“He could not stay away from his children even for a minute. Had he been alive, he would have come in these seven years. If they had even given us his dead body, we wouldn’t be complaining,” she explains.
All these women can do now is attempt to be strong for the sake of what remains of their broken families, and hope that the government sees fit to provide the support they need to either find their loved ones, or secure a decent future for their bereft children.