Overcoming helplessness

A Kunan Poshpora rape victim refuses to be condemned and cocooned in shame. She runs a self-help group with other such victims, helping them gain not only financial independence but dignity as well. Majid Maqbool reports.

In February of 1991, Sameena (name changed), was a young bride in her twenties. Married just a few days back to a labourer from Kunan Poshpora village of Kupwara, she was beginning to settle in her new home. Then came February 23 – a “Qayamat hish Raat (Night of doom)”.
In the quiet of the night, when there was no electricity in the village, Rashtriya Rifles troopers cordoned off the entire village for a crackdown. At around 9:30 p.m. villagers say, troopers broke windows, banged doors, barged into homes and forced the men out. Women remained inside their houses, like in most crackdowns of those years.
Moments later, troopers entered houses. Sameena and her 15-year-old sister-in-law were raped all through the night. Both of them lost senses. Sameena regained consciousness in the morning, but her sister in law didn’t. She was found dead in her room.
However, it was not yet the end of humiliation for Sameena. Next morning, before men were allowed to return home, she was forced out of her home by the troopers. The soldiers slung a gun across her shoulder, and then, she says, the troopers paraded her in the whole village. “They were taking pictures as I was taken from one locality to another,” she recounts before falling silent. Then she looks in the distance, lost in her thoughts.
Now in her forties, Sameena has come a long way. Her hazel eyes are cold, her face is expressionless. To questions about that dark night, she has only few words, some broken sentences, to offer. She prefers to talk of the self help group she heads now. Her eyes light up, she talks passionately about the group. Over the years, her story has transformed from that of a Kunan Poshpora rape victim to one of inspiration for other women.
The journey, though, has been difficult.
In the years following the incident, she, like the other rape victims of the village, had to fight social stigma that came with the tragedy. Over 20 women and girls were raped by troopers in Kunan village that night.
Sameena also had to save her marriage, which, she says, was at the brink of falling apart after the incident. Many times she had to face taunts. “My husband wouldn’t talk about it but when there were heated arguments, these things come up,” said Sameena.
Social stigma forced many rape victims of Kunan Poshpora to live a quiet resigned life in the confines of their homes. But Sameena was different. Unlike other victims, she refused to be cocooned in shame. She refused to resign to her fate. She wanted a life of dignity, not a condemned life of victimhood. And she wanted to help other victims too. That is when a social worker came up with the idea of a self help group. And Sameena took the opportunity.
She was instrumental in bringing together 15 of the women to form the self help group. Few years back, with some financial help from a social worker, Dilafroze Qazi, a bank account for the 15 Kunan Poshpora women victims was created. Initially three lakh rupees were deposited in the account. Then every month the women started saving some money in their accounts. Sameena, being vocal about the interests of affected women like her, was a natural choice to lead the self help group. Eventually she became the chairwoman of the self help group.
From the money that Qazi contributed and saved in a bank account, the women brought 15 cows – one each for 15 women of the self help group.
The women bring the milk produced from the cows, and then sell it to shopkeepers in the local market. The money earned is deposited in the account of the self help group. Run entirely by the 15 women, the self help group also has a grocery shop in the village. Men have no say in its functioning.
Sameena takes care of the shop, too. The profit earned from the shop goes into the bank accounts of the women. She encourages all the women associated with the self help group to deposit Rs 300 every month in their own accounts. She says all these women, who were earlier identified as rape victims of Kunan Poshpora, have found some dignity by coming together, and working hard to earn their livelihood.
“It feels good to be empowered. Other women look up to me,” The self help group has given her a sense of dignity, and a purpose to live and support other women like her. For her work she is respected by all the women, and men, in Kunan Poshpora.
It feels good to be identified as the chairman of the self help group, she says, and not as a Kunan Poshpora rape victim. “It feels good to be able to help women who have suffered social stigma over the years.”
She is happy for an entirely different reason, too. Her husband, who now works in Police, respects her even more for running the self help group.
“He supports me in my work now,” she says as a hint of smile, for once, eases her cold expressions.  

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