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International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:51 pm on 9th March 2017.

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Photo of Lord Hussain Lord Hussain Liberal Democrat 3:51 pm, 9th March 2017

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for introducing this debate. International Women’s Day was first observed over a century ago. Progress has been made around the world in the quest for equality. Today, women have gained the right to vote, to run for public office and to enjoy constitutional guarantees of equality in many countries. In many countries, women are active participants in the economy, are acquiring high level education and are playing a crucial role in the political, economic, social and cultural life of their families, communities and countries. However, there are still situations in the world where the struggle for human rights, equality and the rule of law continues at a heavy price.

At a glance, countries in south-east Asia—namely, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan—have progressed well, and women there have held the highest ranks in politics and government. All these countries have seen female Prime Ministers. However, that is a superficial phenomenon limited to the ruling class of these countries, whereas the situation on the ground is very different. I draw noble Lords’ attention to Indian-administered Kashmir, where rape has been constantly used by the Indian forces as a weapon of oppression. The high-profile cases of sexual violence in the Kashmir valley show a pattern of intimidation and threats being deployed by the Government, the police and the military so that the cases do not reach trial.

Many victims of the Kunan Poshpora gang rape by the security forces, which took place in February 1991, have died waiting for justice and the justice system has failed to conclude the process of justice during the last 26 years. The victims have been disowned by their families, for reasons of “honour” and “shame” and no support system is available for them in society.

According to the popular newspaper The Hindu, on 19 February 2015,

“Last year at a seminar in Srinagar, women from Kunan-Poshpora, twin villages in Kupwara district of Kashmir, publicly recounted the night of February 23, 1991, when soldiers of the Indian Army invaded their lives, privacy and dignity. Masquerading as a ‘cordon and search operation to catch militants,’ the soldiers of 4th Rajputana Rifles, of the Army’s 68th Brigade, entered the villages and launched the most potent tool of repression used in theatres of political conflict — rape, sexual humiliation and sexual torture”.

It goes on to say:

“Sexualised violence in wars and conflicts is neither incidental, nor is it a question of sex. When 125 soldiers lay down a siege over a village, separate the men from the women and sexually assault more than 50 women, from ages 13 to 60, it is indicative of a systemic military practice. The intent was not only to terrorise and traumatise the people under assault—they are often accused of harbouring militants—but also sending out a message of retribution to the Kashmir resistance movement”.

The newspaper further adds:

“The survivors, who appeared in front of a large gathering in Srinagar, for the first time since the incident, were accompanied by Syed Mohammad Yasin, the Deputy Commissioner of Kupwara in 1991. Yasin broke down when he said: ‘I was shocked to see the plight of the women … A woman told me that she was kept under jackboots by the soldiers while her daughter and daughter-in-law were being raped before her eyes. A pregnant woman was not spared either ….’ The message of retaliation, humiliation and shame was palpable.

These victims offer suffer from double victimisation through neglect and isolation. The Kunan Poshpora incident is one of many thousands of such rape cases at the hands of the Indian security forces in Kashmir. There is simply no end to it.

In Kashmir, since 1989 the death of a male generation at the hands of security forces has left behind a population of widows and another group of women called half widows. The half widows find their husbands missing during the last 28 years and it is generally believed that they were taken out of circulation by the security services and the police. They are either in custody or have died during custody under torture. Unless there is a closure and a certainty about these missing people, these women cannot get married and are called half widows. Many of these women are unable to find work due to either lack of education, lack of opportunities, family commitments, cultural or religious barriers or fear of travelling alone. Hence they live under extreme agony, fear and poverty.

According to the Association of Parents of Missing Persons, a local NGO, more than 10,000 people were missing in Jammu and Kashmir. The Government has admitted that nearly 4,000 are missing. The Amnesty International report of 23 August 2011 identified 2,800 mass graves in Indian-held Kashmir, while no international human rights organisation is allowed to investigate by the Indian authorities. In August 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council was refused access by the Indian authorities to investigate these human rights violations.

While the world is celebrating India’s economic growth, the world’s largest democracy lacks respect for human rights and equity, while its security forces are committing some of the worst human rights abuses with complete impunity. Kashmiri women are crying out loud to the human rights campaigners of the free world to consider them equal and support them to get justice.

On that note, I ask the Minister whether Her Majesty’s Government will raise the plight of Kashmiri women with the Government of India at the earliest possible opportunity.