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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 December 2007, 10:05 GMT
The plight of Kashmir's 'half-widows'
By Altaf Hussain
BBC News, Srinagar

A rally by half widows in Indian Kashmir
The half widows hold protest rallies every month

"Every day I wake up in the morning, I think he might be at the door. In the evening while I lay the table for dinner, my eyes are fixed at the door in the hope that he may just come in," says Zainab, whose husband went missing 10 years ago.

Zainab's husband was allegedly arrested by soldiers fighting separatist militants in Indian-administered Kashmir in a conflict notorious for its human rights abuses.

There has been no information about him since then.

Zainab is someone that people in Kashmir refer to as a "half-widow".

A prominent human rights organisation, the Coalition of Civil Society, says there are between 1,500 and 2000 half-widows in the state.

Most have given up hope that their men will ever return.

Yet hardly any are ready to marry again.

'Worse than a widow'

Shabnam was married to a lorry driver, Abdul Rashid, for 12 years when he disappeared in 1997.

Shabnam, whose husband disappeared in 1997
Shabnam has spent 'a fortune' trying to find her husband

"My parents insisted that I should re-marry. But I thought of my children. I am both mother and father to them. I cannot desert them," she says.

Shabnam breaks down while talking about her husband.

"I miss Rashid so often and miss him so badly. My heart bleeds for him. He was such a good man. I cannot find another Rashid," she says.

"Had it not been for my children, I couldn't have lived."

Rafiqa, whose husband disappeared 13 years ago, says a half-widow is worse than a widow.

"If I knew for sure that my husband was dead, I would give up on him. But, we have been kept in the dark. We think he might still be alive. The uncertainty is so agonising - for me, for the children, for everyone."

The half-widows are worse off for one more reason.

They have to spend a "fortune" to search for their missing husbands.

Duped

"We visited every detention centre across the state. We had to spend a huge sum of money. We sold our house and several household articles. But all in vain," says Shabnam.

Many such women have been defrauded of their money by rogues.

"Many people came to me saying they had seen my husband. I paid them a lot of money to buy his freedom. I could have set aside the money for my children. First I lost my husband and then my money too," says Rafiqa.

Some half-widows have been supported by their parents, in-laws or other close relatives.

A soldier keeps vigil in Kashmir
Thousands of civilians have disappeared in Kashmir since 1991

But in most cases the relatives themselves are too poor to do much for them.

Safia, who lives in Rajbagh in Srinagar, says: "My only brother is a meagrely paid salesman. What can he do for me? Both my parents are ill. Everyone from my husband's family has been caring, but they have their own families to look after."

Safia had to give up her teaching job for health reasons. She has now set up a stationery shop to make a living.

The president of the Coalition of Civil Society, Pervez Imroz, says 85% of the half-widows are poor as most of the disappeared men were from the weaker sections of society.

Traumatised

"It is the backward communities that are most vulnerable to human rights violations because they are voiceless, powerless," he says.

Mr Imroz says a recent survey by his group in Baramullah district indicates that more than 60% of the disappeared persons were civilians; only the remaining were militants or those connected to them.

Mr Imroz says the half-widows and their children also suffer from post traumatic distress syndrome (PTDS).

"They need counselling but none is available to them," he says.

Many of the half-widows have been campaigning under the banner of the APDP (Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons).

They hold protest rallies and demonstrations at least once every month. They have also filed petitions in the state high court which, given the slow pace of the Indian judiciary, makes justice a distant dream.

They have been demanding that the government declare their missing husbands dead if they are not alive.

Theoretically, the government has to pay 100,000 rupees ($2,500) and provide job to one family member as compensation to the kin of any civilian killed by militants or the security forces.

But the family of a missing person has to wait for five years before they can apply for such benefits.

The APDP says fewer than 400 half-widows have received the relief.

The authorities put the number of missing people at 3,931 but APDP says 8,000 to 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have disappeared since the outbreak of the armed conflict in Kashmir 19 years ago.



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