Even as cross-border shelling intensifies in Kashmir, women and girls stay away from bunkers where sexual assault is prevalent.
While the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan has long been disputed, conflict along the de facto border has escalated in recent months. When alarms sound, many people rush to privately owned community bunkers. However, some women and girls are staying in their homes, fearing rampant sexual assault in the cramped bunkers.
Mehnaz, one of the women staying home, experienced assault when she was in a bunker last summer. The ongoing shelling prevented people from noticing her assault, she said.
“One of the men began touching me,” Mehnaz said, “It was dark and all the parents were concerned about the shelling. No one was paying attention.”
She could not report her assault in fears that her molester, who owned the bunker, would bar her family from the bunker if she said anything.
Bunkers are far from the only place Kashmiri women experience assault. A culture of misogyny and assault has long been prevalent and worsened after the Indian government occupied the region last summer, according to Ather Zia, a Kashmiri activist and gender studies professor.
“Mass rapes, harassments, and attacks on their men, home and hearth—a fact of Kashmiri women’s lives even before now—have only been exacerbated,” she said.
The gender-based violence in bunkers is not a new phenomenon, either. One woman’s daughter was raped in a bunker in 1998 and became pregnant before being forced to marry her rapist. She later died in childbirth. The mother now vows to never take her children to a shared bunker again.
The prevalence of assault in bunkers comes in part from unbalanced power dynamics of bunker ownership. Because the Pakistani government has not built enough bunkers, wealthy families pay for their own, which poorer neighbors rely on. This reliance further discourages women from reporting, even as they already face cultural stigma around experiencing assault.
To remedy the lack of bunkers, the Pakistani military launched an initiative last summer to build more bunkers for residents. It has built around 70 as of last August, a far cry from meeting the needs of the more than 100,000 families that live along the contested border.
Sources: The New York Times 05/15/2020; Women’s Media Center 09/25/2019; Anadolu Agency 08/30/2019.