Human Rights is a loaded term – those who have it do not feel the need for it, those who don’t, make a claim to such rights which are missing and there are still some more who don’t even know what they are missing. For those who are at the end of the continuum, it’s like that story of a blind man who said “if you have never seen the light, you don’t even know what darkness is!”
The term Human Rights has become a part of the regular Kashmiri vocabulary – the moment one mentions it, pupils dilate and multiple (state and non-state) antennae go up (for good or for bad).
Rights, much like Warfare and Traditional Security paradigms is primarily comprehended as male-centric and coloured with overtones of masculinity. The rights of women come to the forefront only in terms of Kunan-Poshpora or Shopian2, which are also coloured by notions of ‘our’ women.3 While these atrocious acts of indignity and the importance of upholding values of bodily integrity and dignity can in no way be overlooked or belittled; there is also a need to acknowledge that Women are much more than just their Bodies – that Women are Humans, with a heart, mind, body and soul – a holistic whole much like their male counterparts, where they too have material, economic and intellectual needs (to say the least) for their survival and sustenance, that access to such needs are a right by virtue of the International Bill of Rights4, and denial of those tantamount to lack of human rights.
Enforced Disappearances, in itself, is a contentious matter within a conflict discourse, wherein the parties (state or non-state actors) guilty of it would never own up to it. International Humanitarian Laws make it binding on all parties to a conflict to avoid unnecessary suffering and disrupting the lives of civilian population – but that is on paper, the reality is different. Disappearances are undoubtedly serious human rights violations, and there are ongoing efforts to fight for the rights of the disappeared. However, in this fight for the rights of the disappeared, their families and survivors have somehow been overlooked. As much as there is a need to keep looking for the one who is missing, there’s also a need to look after those looking for the missing.
In a society that is majorly structured along conventional lines, these women suffer from an existential identity crisis: Are they half widows or half wives? A little of both and whole of neither, unfortunately in their case the two halves do not make a whole and they keep languishing in uncertainty for the rest of their lives. This hanging in between the two halves spells the difference between having a share in the husband’s property and waiting for the share for a lifetime. This also spells out whether the woman can have access to social security benefits like widow pension.
Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”, however, the right to life, liberty and security of these people are clouded over when the living is a resignation to fate, the liberty is limited to patriarchal ‘boundaries’ and security depends on the benevolence of extended family and relatives. Article 25 (1) of the UDHR provide for a“….right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” Most of the women whom we had come across were unemployed, suffering from Post-traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) and living in circumstances beyond their control, not to forget the whole conundrum of the peculiar nature of their Widowhood, yet the right to security, health and well-being of such women somehow managed to slip away from the minds of both the government and civil society. Yes, there is an ex-gratia amount of 1 lakh INR that they might avail of, but that process in itself takes years to come by, and as many had exclaimed a few thousands flow out of their pocket before the much sorted for 1 lakh find a place in their bank account. There is of course also a scope for Compassionate Employment, but that too is fraught with problems of bureaucratic red-tapism. Moreover, it is difficult to avail of such employment when the Right to Education as mentioned in Art 26 of the UDHR has been glossed over for an entire generation of women. In the event of such instances of uncertainty and insecurity, remarriage of such women is generally seen as not only a feasible but also a progressive option. While the good intent behind this evolution can hardly be discredited, it also remains to be seen how many of these marriages were voluntarily entered into because the psychological effects of entering into a new marriage while the whereabouts of a previous husband is unknown can be overwhelming to say the very least. This brings to mind Art 16 (1) & (2) of the UDHR: “ Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” That it is a dream which most women in South Asia are yet to realize is not unknown, none the less, it doesn’t harm to remind ourselves of it every once in a while.
Often in South Asian conventional societies the understanding of human rights is besotted with ideas that are largely masculine and state-oriented with things to do outside of the domestic realm; that the Personal can also be and often is Political is something that many in South Asia are yet to wrap their heads around; that women are also beholders of and entitled to basic rights of access to resources (without always necessarily challenging conventional structures in place) doesn’t quite seem something to be spoken of or discussed about; that these rights even though originally may emanate from the State are something that Men and Women owe to each other within and outside of the homes as markers of respect and community sustenance is not how these rights are comprehended.
Even if not in the Radical Feminist sense of the term, but the personal lives of these women are none the less political – the disappearances of their husbands is the result of the socio-political situation of the place; the term half-widows itself is highly politicized; their daily lives and the associated personal tragedies reflect the existing political problem that even the international community couldn’t find a solution to in the last six decades and more – Their personal lives, unfortunately are more politicized than they realize! However, in an effort to focus on Article 5 & 95 of the UDHR, somehow the preamble took a back seat which states that “the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom…” In such a context, when human rights have for various reasons become a part of the common vocabulary, it doesn’t harm to explore the full potential of the concept that it is, because at the end of the day, man or woman, it is all about the right to be human!
1 A term largely in use to describe the wives of the men who have been disappeared (never to return) over the years because of the conflict; the whereabouts and status of these men remain unknown for the longest time.
2 Instances of Rape committed by security forces: in the first instance, a regimented force of the Army mass-raped the women of these two adjoining villages in 1993 (case still pending); in the second case two women were again allegedly raped and murdered by security forces in 2009.
3 Rape is often used as a weapon of war and the bodies of women as sites of war, wherein, the perpetrator uses rape to infiltrate and mark territory thereby displaying the assumed inferiority and helplessness of those who can’t even ‘protect their’ women. Underlying this is also the discourse and understanding of women and their bodies as upholders of community values and shrines of sanctity.
4 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights(ICESCR) together form the International Bill of Rights which have now gained the status of customary law in the International Law paradigm, understood as akin to constitutional framework on human rights.
5 Art – 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; Art – 9: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.