Studying under the shadow of fear: Female students in Kashmir sexually harassed by Indian soldiers

Studying under the shadow of fear: Female students in Kashmir sexually harassed by Indian soldiers
Housing military structures in close proximity to schools in Kashmir has had serious implications on the mental health of students, especially females who face sexual harassment, reports Haziq Qadri.
7 min read
26 December, 2018
Kashmiri students protest against the rape and murder of an eight-year-old in Srinagar [Getty]
Midhat* had skipped her school for the third consecutive day. On the first day, she had stayed home, making an excuse of illness. But when her mother noticed she was well, yet unwilling to go to school, she grew suspicious. On the fourth day, when her mother insisted she attend classes, Midhat confided into her mother the reason for staying home.

Right opposite to the school gate where Midhat studied, in a village in Indian-administered Kashmir's Shopian district, a bulletproof vehicle of paramilitary forces was stationed for few months. Most of the days, when 16-year-old Midhat would come out of her school, a security man would either catcall her, pass comments, and on many occasions, ask her for her phone number.

The last time she had come out of her school, the security man called her. Hesitantly, Midhat went to him. To her surprise, he knew her name and the class she studied in.

"Why don't you talk to me? Are you deaf?" he told her. She froze, Midhat said, for a moment, in fear and disbelief. "I always ignored his comments. But now I was standing face-to-face with my worst nightmare," she said of that conversation.

Midhat did not say anything to him. When she tried to leave, the security man again asked her for her phone number, saying he wanted to talk to her. When she refused, he asked her to get into the vehicle, saying he would drop her home. At this point, Midhat said, she felt she was in danger.

"I had already read about cases where these men (security personnel) had molested and raped girls. When he asked me to get into the vehicle, I broke into a sweat. I hurried away from there," she said, adding that she did not return to her school after that for over a week.

After learning about what her daughter had been through, Midhat's mother accompanied her to school after a week, only to withdraw her admission.

Midhat sought admission in another school, where she travels over seven kilometres everyday. "But it is safer," she said.

Cases like those of Midhat's are not isolated or uncommon in Kashmir that is teemed with military structures in residential areas, along roads and in close proximity with educational institutes.

Two researchers from Kashmir, who conducted a survey on the impact of militarisation on the school children, say housing military structures in close proximity to the educational institutes has serious implications on education and mental health of the students. The most serious consequence, the researches say, is the sexual harassments of students, especially females.

Researchers Sameer Ahmad, who teaches at Central University of Kashmir and Suhail Ahmad, professor at Kashmir University, say the purpose of the study was to advocate the demilitarisation of the civilian areas.

The study was carried out in 2009-10 in three districts: Srinagar, Budgam and Ganderbal. Thirty schools were randomly selected from the three districts and 300 students were interviewed.

The survey revealed that 69 percent of those interviewed claimed they had undergone verbal or physical sexual harassment at the hands of Indian forces stationed near schools.

Read also: Who are Kashmir's Special Police Officers?

An incident in Kashmir's Kupwara district on April 12, 2016 is a case in point. A 16-year-old girl in Handwara town alleged that a soldier of the Indian Army molested her in washroom outside her school. The washroom was next to a military picket.

"I had gone there because the school washrooms were closed. When the soldier grabbed my hand, I cried and ran away," she said.

The survey revealed that 69% of those interviewed claimed they had undergone verbal or physical sexual harassment at the hands of Indian forces stationed near schools

The incident was witnessed by some local youth who were passing by. The incident led to violent protests that rapidly spread across the Valley. Five people, including an elderly woman, were shot dead and dozens injured in the violent reprisal that followed.

Shireen* studied at the Degree College Baramulla in 2014. The college is sandwiched between a massive army cantonment, and police and paramilitary camps. Next to a playground, which is part of the campus, Shireen had gone to fetch drinking water from a tube well during lunch break in on a June day that year. On various occasions, the army would park their vehicles within the college premises and stray around.

"When I went to the well, there were few soldiers standing there already. I was filling the bottle. Suddenly a soldier touched my hand. For a few seconds I did not understand what was happening. Then he said, 'I feel alone at night, give me your number, we will talk'. Trust me, I felt naked there. I left my bottle there and ran away," Shireen, who lives in Sopore, around 15km from the college, said.

I did not tell anyone about it then, Shireen said, because I feared it would escalate into something horrible. "Or, maybe, people would judge me."

A report published by Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) earlier this year details the ramification of military structures in the proximity of educational institutes.

"The presence of army camps in the close proximity of educational institutions creates a scenario of human shields. The scale of such militarisation often always leads to abuse of rights of the civilian population, especially of the children. The ramifications of the occupation of schools by armed forces or the near proximity of educational establishments to nearest army camps and outposts are multiple," the report, titled Terrorised – Impact of Violence on the Children of Jammu and Kashmir, says.

A case in point here is an incident detailed in the report.

"On 21 September 2002, the then Minister of the State for Tourism Ms. Sakina Itoo survived an IED blast at Mirhama in Kulgam district of Kashmir. The minister was on her way from Damhal Hanjipora to Kulgam. The IED blast occurred when the CRPF vehicle escorting the minister was passing by. One CRPF inspector was killed in the massive blast and five others were injured. In an act of violent reprisal against the civilian population, soon after the incident the CRPF men ran amuck and barged into a nearby high-school and fired indiscriminately on the children, killing one girl child Naza Akhtar on the spot and grievously injuring others."

Post-July 2016 mass uprising in Kashmir following the popular militant leader Burhan Wani, violence against students, within the premises of schools and colleges, were reported several times.

In April 2017, students in Degree College Baramulla in north Kashmir staged a protest against the civilian killings in the Valley. As the protests begun, the paramilitary forces barged inside the college and fired teargas shells and resorted to aerial firing. Many students were arrested from the campus also.

Under the constant gaze of gun-wielding men, the risk to the lives of students always runs high. Sameer Ahmad, who travelled along with his co-author to various parts of Kashmir in connection with his study, recalled one of the visits to a remote village central Kashmir.

"We came across a school in Gutlibagh village of district Ganderbal. There were numerous bullet marks on the school walls. As such, the life of students remains at peril," Sameer Ahmad said.

As per the survey conducted by the JKCCS, between 2003 and 2017, 185 students have been killed in various incidents of violence in Jammu and Kashmir.

"Indian armed forces and state police have killed a singularly highest number of them: 136 children in the given period, accounting for 73 percent of the total killings of students. The killing of students due to explosions accounted for 20 killings, while unidentified gunmen killed not less than 12 children. Militants are responsible for the killing of five students, while three children have been killed due to cross LOC shelling."

Military presence in the vicinity of schools significantly increases the risk of exposing school children to hostilities and retaliations by illegal armed groups

The JKCCS report further states: "An independent survey of the exact number of schools and educational institutions occupied by Indian armed forces has not been conducted yet and the government denies providing information under the pretext that 'they have not been maintaining any such data.'"

United Nation's Convention on the Rights of the Child (2010) indicated that, "Military presence in the vicinity of schools significantly increases the risk of exposing school children to hostilities and retaliations by illegal armed groups."

The committee urged the State party, "[to] immediately discontinue the occupation of schools by the armed forces and strictly ensure compliance with humanitarian law and the principle of distinction. The Committee urges the State party to conduct prompt and impartial investigations of reports indicating the occupation of schools by the armed forces and ensure that those responsible within the armed forces are duly suspended, prosecuted and sanctioned with appropriate penalties."

Pursuing education under the constant shadow of guns puts the lives of students at risk. During the incidents of violence around such educational institutes, the students are prone to become part of the "collateral damage".

*Names have been changed to protect identity 

Haziq Qadri is a multimedia journalist at Barcroft Media. Bylines in Guardian, Mail Online, Daily Mirror, Telegraph, BBC India & The Caravan.

Follow him on Twitter: haziq_qadri