Kashmiri Widows and Half Widows: Silent Sufferers

Mar 5, 2024 | Violence Against Women & Children

By Geneva Times

Dr. Shagufta Ashraf

“Half-widows” are women in Indian-occupied Jammu & Kashmir whose husbands went missing and were never found. These husbands have not been officially declared dead, leaving their wives in a state of not knowing. The term “half-widows” reflects the uncertain situation these women face, spending years waiting without any official word on what happened to their husbands.

The staggering numbers reveal the scale of this silent tragedy. Indian Administered Jammu and Kashmir is home to between 2,000 and 2,500 half-widows, each bearing the weight of profound loss and unresolved grief. Compounding this sorrow, 6,000 orphans, the children of these half-widows, navigate the challenges of growing up in the aftermath of a conflict that has left them deeply scarred. However, these figures are only the tip of the iceberg, with the true count believed to be much higher, obscured by the pervasive shroud of fear and uncertainty that engulfs the region. This unique and tragic category has burgeoned, with their numbers swelling to thousands in recent years. What sets these women apart is the excruciating pain and agony they endure, a burden that surpasses even that borne by other women whose loved ones have tragically fallen to the bullets of the Indian army.

In the chaos of the Kashmir conflict, enforced disappearances emerge as a weapon wielded by the Indian state, a strategic tool to assert dominance over the rights of the Kashmiri people. While men predominantly bear the brunt of enforced disappearances, the repercussions extend to Kashmiri women, who disproportionately shoulder the burdens emanating from such heinous acts. In this context, enforced disappearances unfold as a sinister aspect of warfare, a means through which the Indian state seeks to establish hegemony during the conflict in Kashmir. The suffering is not confined to the disappeared individuals alone; it permeates the fabric of Kashmiri society, affecting men and women alike.

The disproportionate impact on Kashmiri women is a stark reminder of the collateral damage inflicted by enforced disappearances. Beyond the immediate victims, the ripple effects extend to families, communities, and the collective psyche of a region in turmoil.

The haunting specter of enforced disappearances in Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir has been a longstanding and distressing issue for families. The term refers to cases where individuals go missing and the circumstances surrounding their disappearance are shrouded in uncertainty and fear. The matter gained attention in early 1989 in Jammu and Kashmir when young men began to resist and vocalize slogans against the Indian occupation of the region. This marked the beginning of a tragic period that has left families in deep sorrow and hopelessness.

One significant challenge in addressing this problem is the lack of thorough investigations. Since the outset, proper inquiries into these disappearances have been scarce, making it difficult to understand the full scope of the issue. The fear of retaliation and reprisal discourages many affected families from reporting these cases, leading to incomplete documentation of the problem. As a result, the true number of individuals who have gone missing remains unknown. However, it is said that more than 8,000 men disappeared during the turbulent period spanning the late 1980s to the early 2000s. The Indian government, however, has provided widely varying figures for these disappearances, ranging from 1,105 to 3,931. The unsettling reality of mass unidentified graves scattered across the region serves as a haunting reminder of these enforced disappearances. In August 2011, the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) in Jammu and Kashmir revealed the discovery of 2,730 unidentified bodies interred in unmarked graves in 38 sites across three districts in northern Kashmir, a comprehensive investigation into these mass graves is yet to take place.

Article 2 of the United Nations Convention against Torture categorizes enforced disappearance as a grave violation, encompassing actions like arrest, detention, abduction, or any form of liberty deprivation carried out by state agents or individuals acting with state authorization, support, or acquiescence. The subsequent refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or the concealment of the disappeared person’s fate or whereabouts removes them from the protection of the law.

The process of filing a missing persons report in Srinagar unfolds as a daunting ordeal, fraught with obstacles that only compound the distress of affected families. Attempts to report missing members often lead to police pressure and intimidation, coercing some families into withdrawing their complaints out of sheer fear. Others, determined to seek justice, find themselves navigating through different courts merely to register a First Information Report (FIR). This arduous journey reflects the dire challenges families face in their pursuit of truth and justice.

Adding to the irony of this distressing situation is the fact that government relief pensions, a nominal sum of 100,000 rupees ($2,253) per year, are granted only after families obtain a death certificate from district authorities. However, there is a cruel catch – families must first prove that the missing victim was not involved in any activities construed as political militancy. This bureaucratic hurdle adds insult to injury, further delaying assistance to families in dire need.

In this harrowing region, the Dissolution of The Muslim Marriage Act, tracing its roots back to 1939 and approved in Jammu and Kashmir in 1945, holds provisions for the legal dissolution of marriages. Section 2 (i) of the act provides a ray of hope for widows, allowing them to seek divorce if “the whereabouts of the husband have not been known for a period of four years.” Despite this legal recourse, the provision often remains disregarded in Kashmir. Women, grappling with the anguish of missing spouses, find themselves embroiled in protracted legal battles against in-laws and courts, particularly in their quest for property rights during divorce. Those fortunate enough to possess wealth often channel substantial sums of money, time, and resources into the exhaustive search for their disappeared relatives. This heartfelt commitment, however, is not merely born out of choice but is a compelling response to a system of justice that appears fundamentally flawed and inadequate.

The realization that the existing justice mechanisms may fall short of delivering a proper investigation into the crimes surrounding disappearances propels these wealthier families into action. They understand that the intricate web of bureaucracy, legal challenges and societal neglect creates a daunting barrier for those seeking answers through conventional channels. Consequently, they take it upon themselves to fund private investigators, legal experts, and other essential resources necessary for an in-depth and comprehensive search.

What makes this struggle even more disheartening is the acknowledgment that even elements within the police and security forces, entities entrusted with the duty of upholding justice and security, can transform into adversaries. Instead of assisting in the search, some instances reveal these forces becoming obstacles, adding another layer of complexity to an already challenging journey of affectees.

This reality underscores a collective failure of both society and the government, wherein the suffering of families grappling with enforced disappearances is further exacerbated. The web of bureaucracy and legal challenges becomes a suffocating maze, leaving families caught in perpetual uncertainty and fear. The very fabric of familial bonds is torn apart, as the unresolved fate of missing loved ones leaves an indelible mark on the region, perpetuating a cycle of anguish and despair.


A silent crisis looms over thousands of women caught in an identity crisis, grappling with the ambiguity of their marital status. This struggle not only reflects a cultural gap but also sheds light on the overlooked needs and equality issues faced by women in the region.

Thousands of women, termed “half-widows,” find themselves in a perplexing situation where their marital status remains uncertain. The lack of a clear declaration regarding the fate of their missing husbands plunges them into an ongoing identity crisis.


The plight of orphaned and half-orphaned children in IoK stands as a poignant reflection of the human cost of prolonged conflict. While exact figures may elude precision, a staggering estimate suggests that more than 1,07,950 children have been orphaned or half-orphaned by the actions of the Indian army during the years of conflict. These kids facing difficulties go beyond just numbers; their dreams are broken and they have limited opportunities.


The dominating presence of militarization is more significant than the actual war, causing harm that goes well beyond the battlefield. Women in Kashmir face the worst effects of militarization. They endure loss, become widows due to conflict and suffer from the harshness of rape and violence. India uses various harsh tactics like curfews, crackdowns, fake encounters, and more to control the region, making life for Kashmiris extremely difficult.

The impact of militarization on Kashmiri women is profound, symbolizing an increased state of vulnerability and perpetual threat in which they exist. The aftermath of conflict leaves women as widows or half widows and the trauma of sexual violence further worsens an already dire situation.


Kashmiri women, as the silent victims of the conflict, bear immeasurable losses. Every loss in this protracted struggle is a loss to a Kashmiri woman, whether it is the loss of a husband, brother, father, son, or daughter or the heart-wrenching experience of witnessing loved ones disappear. As mothers, daughters, wives, and sisters, they silently endure the subtle but profound impacts of the military occupation.

The situation is exacerbated by the Indian armed forces’ legal, moral, and political impunity, creating a distressing environment where justice remains elusive. The discourse surrounding sexual violence in IoK becomes muddled and obscured in the absence of accountability for the occupying state. The distressing reality of over 11,000 instances of sexual violence against Kashmiri women since 1989 underscores the severity of the crisis, emphasizing the pervasive nature of this deeply troubling issue.


The situation for half-widows in Kashmir becomes even more difficult due to social isolation, a heartbreaking consequence of their prolonged and uncertain circumstances. These women left in a state of limbo due to their husbands’ unresolved disappearances, find themselves vulnerable to various threats.


The term “half-widows” carries a weight that extends beyond mere loss, encompassing a burden of financial struggles left behind by their husbands. Half-widows, whose husbands disappeared at the hands of the Indian army, find themselves in a challenging predicament—neither officially recognized as deceased nor present to provide economic support. The absence of husbands leaves these women economically vulnerable, propelling them into destitution and a relentless struggle for survival.


In instances where no family is able or willing to support the half-widow and her children, homelessness becomes a haunting reality. Some children may be placed in orphanages or Trusts. Faced with desperation, some half-widows resort to menial work, while others are driven to begging.


The general and sexual violence against women has resulted in a notable increase in psychiatric and psychosomatic illness, with over 60% of patients at government psychiatry hospitals being women.


The persistent reports of sexual violence perpetrated by Indian forces in Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir raise serious concerns about non-compliance with international laws, particularly those governing armed conflict and human rights. Rape, as a violation of international law, is unequivocally condemned and its prohibition is explicit in various international humanitarian law (IHL) texts. Despite this, the actions of Indian forces in Kashmir underscore a disturbing pattern of non-compliance.

International humanitarian law, applicable during armed conflicts, condemns acts such as “violence to life and person,” “outrages on personal dignity,” and “torture, or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.” While rape may not always be explicitly mentioned, its inclusion in these broader prohibited behaviors is evident. Furthermore, several international conventions and authorities explicitly recognize rape and sexual violence as forms of torture. These include the 1994 Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women, the 1993 UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda (ICTY and ICTR).

In both international and non-international armed conflicts, IHL prohibits rape and other forms of sexual violence. International criminal law imposes individual criminal responsibility for perpetrators of sexual crimes. The gravity of the situation in Kashmir is underscored by the alarming number of reported cases, surpassing 11,000 instances of sexual violence against Kashmiri women since 1989. These stark facts not only emphasize the severity of the crisis but also highlight the pervasive nature of the issue, pointing to a systemic problem that demands urgent attention.