Students, activists protest against sexual violence in Kashmir

“Social activism is one part of the process but it’s a much deeper process.”

Students from the four cities – Srinagar, Delhi, Bombay and Kerala today united to protest against the sexual violence and in particular, what they say are lapses in the Jammu and Kashmir Health Department molestation case. These four protests were spearheaded by the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU), Islamic University of Science and Technology Students Union (IUSTSU), United Nurses Association (Kerala) and the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA).

The scorching heat did little to deter Kashmiri activists from sitting-in with placards at the Pratap Park. Qurat Ul Ayn, a student’s union member at the IUST, said that the sexual harassment has pervasive psychological effects, largely due to the lens it is viewed through. “First of all you accuse the women,” she said. “You don’t see that guys are on streets like stray dogs. You don’t look at that.” She, like many Kashmiri women, has experienced eve teasing but says she is forced to “keep [her] mouth shut.”

Protesters’ main demands, according to their press release, were the creation of a workplace anti-sexual harassment committee under Vishakha Guidelines and a fresh high court probe into the J-K Health Department molestation case, in which the director of the department was accused of sexually harassing a nurse.

The Vishakha Guidelines, stipulated by the Supreme Court of India, emphasize gender equality and protection from sexual harassment, especially at the workplace. This includes anything that can place a working woman at disadvantage compared to male employees in her career just because she is a woman i.e. physical contacts and advances, lewd comments or gestures and rumors with sexually colored remarks.

The protestors didn’t deny that the Health Director may be innocent but they insist that the current process used to evaluate cases of sexual harassment is sub-par. The Vishakha guidelines require every state government department to have a Complaints Committee. Nothing of this sort exists in Kashmir.

Activists say the “one-man committee” of the J-K Health Minister, Taj Mohiuddin, who had complete authority in handling the molestation case, violates these guidelines. The guidelines call for a woman to head the Complaints Committee, at least half the members to be women and an external member who has an understanding of these issues. “These are all safeguards to ensure the investigation is not tampered with,” says activist Shehla Rashid, a student at JNU.

Although The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act was enacted by the Indian government on 9 Dec. 2013, Rashid says it hasn’t been implemented. The act requires every head of the department to constitute and ICC to check sexual harassment at the workplace and prescribes strict punishment for the guilty but there has been little concrete follow-up.

Protestors also perceive Mohiuddin’s statement that “from day one he knew the Director of Health was innocent” as a “blatant admission of bias.” “How does the minister know?” asks Rashid. “Was he there? Then he should become a witness in the case.” Protestors are further outraged by the case of perjury against the complainant who is being prosecuted on accounts of making false accusations. Another point of contention is the Director’s promotion in the midst of the case. Activists argue, as stated in their press release, “The accused in such cases should not be allowed to hold high posts till the enquiry is over.”

“Social activism is one part of the process but it’s a much deeper process,” Rashid says. Protesters left the park having created awareness but know there’s a long way to go.

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