Coronavirus Outbreak: Destitute women of Kashmir bear the greatest brunt of COVID-19 lockdown
Kashmir was under a clampdown for over six months, but locals say they weren't as scared during that time as they are during the ongoing coronavirus lockdown
Shaheena Akhter, 40, wakes up early in the morning and quickly finishes her household chores. She wakes her only daughter to feed and ready her, before leaving for work. On a normal day, she leaves by around 8 am and returns by 5 pm. After dropping her daughter to a nearby government middle school, she spends the entire day working as a domestic help.
Shaheena and her daughter Urooj are the only two members of the family.
"My husband and I had no biological children and we adopted our daughter Urooj from a hospital when she was only two days old," she said.
Shaheena's husband, a daily-wager passed away six years ago. When the mother and daughter were just about coming to terms with their loss, relatives asked them to vacate the two-room home in which they lived.
"Urooj is not our biological child. My husband died suddenly and left behind no documentation or mentioning that Urooj is entitled to her share of the property. I was only entitled to the 'mehr' they gave me in cash, according to Islamic law," explained Shaheena with a sigh.
Within the neighbourhood, another widow was living alone with her three children and gave Shaheena and her daughter a room to live, for the time being, free of cost.
"It was the hardest time of my life when my husband died. I was on the road with a little girl and had no place to live. I was devastated," Shaheena said.
Shaheena was contacted by a 'mohalla committee' who took the responsibility to care of the food essentials and medical needs both mother and daughter would require.
"They always helped me. From the small amount I used to earn, I used to save some to build a room of my own," she recalled.
Shaheena started to manage the household with her salary, but after COVID-19 hit, she lost her job as well.
"The woman for whom I used to work is nice. She used to help me above and beyond my salary, but it's a tough time for everyone. If I go out to work, I will get infected. If I stay home, we will die hungry. In both situations, we will die," she said.
Shaheena is not the only one so badly affected by the pandemic. There are such stories in every colony and village of Kashmir as the conflict has impacted every single home. Mohalla committees and NGOs help destitute women, who are registered with them, survive. But, they too are unable to generate funds.
Just a few miles away from Shaheena's house lives Fazi Begum, 80, in an old mud house with her differently-abled daughter on the banks of the river Jhelum.
"I lived in this locality my entire life and never slept on an empty stomach. My neighbours have always helped me in many ways," said Fazi, tears rolling down her cheeks.
Fazi's husband died in an accident almost two decades ago and left her behind with four daughters.
"With the help of people, I managed to get all four of my daughters married. Three are well-settled, after a few months of marriage, the younger one was tortured by her husband. The abuse was so severe that she had a miscarriage. She could not bear this and slowly lost her mind," she recalled sadly.
Fazi isn't the sort of person to reach out to people for help. People would instead volunteer help of their own accord. But due to the pandemic, no one has showed up at her door for the past three weeks. "Even when Kashmir was under curfew [following the abrogation of Article 370], I faced no problem because people from the neighbourhood would come with help. Even people from other villages came with help, but now, no one comes. I am sure it is because they are afraid of the virus," she said.
Fazi still has hope and faith that this too is for the better and they will survive. She said, “We survived in toughest of the tough times this too will pass.”
Chairman of the Help Foundation, Nighat Shafi Pandit, who has been working in Kashmir since 1997 largely with destitute women and children, said, "COVID-19 has impacted the women badly because one cannot meet the needful in person and can't understand their needs virtually. We have worked with them and we understand they feel suffice within a little help only but most of the time that help is not enough.”
Nighat with her team has started to call women who are registered with them and transferred some money as well so that they do not face a shortage of food and medicines.
Kashmir was under a clampdown for over six months, but Nighat said that she never was scared during that time and would leave home every day to help people who required help. But this time she has restricted to her home.
"I am not scared of bombs or bullets. If it is destined, it will happen; but it will hurt only me. If I will go out amid the pandemic, it will risk not only my family but also those people who I will meet and want to help," she reasoned. Any clampdown or lockdown is hard for women. They face stress and carry the burden of the lockdown, especially those who do not have resources to meet their ends.
Parveena Ahanger, founder and chairperson of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, also agreed that this lockdown to contain COVID-19 is more stressful than the one that followed the scrapping of Article 370.
"I have developed a relationship with destitute women are those single women, widows or mothers who are living a lonely life. I used to visit them personally. Even the clampdown could not stop me from meeting them. But in the current crisis, going out to meet them would mean putting their lives at risk. I have stopped going out, but continue to help in whatever way I can," she said.
Nighat noted that she believes happiness comes from creating something, so fabric, thread and other material is being delivered to the doorsteps of women. This lets them use their time to embroider and stitch garments that can be sold later, in order to earn some money.
"We are short of funds," Parveena said, "The locals used to donate a lot and people would come and volunteer help. I would request them to reach out to women in need directly at times due to the staff crunch. They would help monthly but when businesses are closed and people are losing jobs, how will people help?"
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