Lack of opportunities and limited availability of employment options in politically unstable and conflict-ridden valley of Jammu and Kashmir has adversely affected all sections of society. This disruption of social and economic life has had particularly adverse affects for Kashmiri Women majority of whom are just bystanders in a conflict that has little to do with them. This coupled with lack of sustainable livelihood options for women has given risen to mental health problems such as stress, anxiety and depression. In fact, according to a report by International Journal of Health Sciences, prevalence of depression in women is way more ( 93.1%) as compared to men (6.8%). Our fellow from 2016 cohort, Raheela Saleem Narchoor and her organization Center for Human Development is trying to empower the women in rural areas of Anantnag district in Kashmir by training them to grow and harvest chilli in their kitchen gardens! She believes that creating such avenues for women would not only help them earn a livelihood but would also help decrease the stress levels.
We spoke to her at length about her work, the many challenges she faces in her work and her larger vision for the Kashmiri women-
Tell us about yourself. What laid the foundation for Center for Human Development?
I grew up in Kashmir at a time when the protests and armed-conflicts were at their peak. Life was not easy for us and I remember going to school amidst random firing and protests . One such incident which still haunts me is the death of my teacher in one such firing. His death devastated me and I couldn’t go to school for 3-4 months because of it. My condition was so bad that my parents finally had to change my school.
From then on, I grew up with the ambition to help people who have had similar disturbing experiences. I studied law in college and after my graduation started working for people who have been affected by violence and unrest in the Kashmir Valley. Recognizing my passion for my work, I was also awarded the International Ford Foundation Fellowship. After having worked with many organizations like Amnesty International, Asian Institute of Technology and Indian social Institute, I came back to Kashmir to set up Centre for Human Development. CHD, primarily, focuses on livelihood generation for women in rural areas of Kashmir.
How is the situation like for women in Kashmir? How does political and civil unrest affect them?
Kashmiri women continue to be victims in this ongoing cycle of violence and political unrest. Research says that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is higher among women than men. According to psychologists working in the valley, most of the patients who visited them have morbid depression out of which 64.51% were males and 69.04% females. The psychiatric Disease hospital of Srinagar treats about 120,000 to 130,000 patients a year and 70% of these patients are women.
Furthermore, the lack of livelihood opportunities for women in rural regions of Kashmir has also affected their mental health. In rural areas the prevalence of depression among females is higher (93.10 %) as compared to males (6.8%). There is also a scientific evidence that depression is 1.5 to 2 times more prevalent among the low-income groups of a population.
Though the conflict has gravely affected the women, there have been very few interventions done so far to address this issue. For decades now, Kashmiri women have suffered from ignorance by the government. Through our work we want to address these problem.
What are the areas of focus for CHD? What problems are you trying to solve?
CHD focuses on generating income for distressed women by utilizing local resources. Currently, we work in the agriculture sector. We encourage women to grow and harvest chilli.
We have an innovative model in which women are involved in almost all stages of supply chain of Chilli Powder production. Women are the producers, manufacturers as well as the sellers of our product. We have set up own food brand called Geo.
To give you an overview of our work. Our women grow chilies in their farms or kitchen gardens, they process and pack it at our in-house processing center . Once the final product is ready these women become its wholesale distributors as well. Through our model we are not only engaging distressed women in constructive activities but we are also helping them generate an income for themselves.
Tell us about the problems women suffer from due to ongoing conflicts in Kashmir? How is CHD trying to solve this problem?
The impact of violence and trauma on women living in conflict-ridden areas has resulted in a host of psychological, economic and social problems. There are very few government policies and schemes framed especially for women farmers. Certain government initiatives such as the ‘Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana’ (MKSP) that do exist have not been implemented in J&K . Here there are no Livelihood Pilots or projects under National Rural Livelihood Mission . Furthermore, in J&K, there is no partnership of NRLM with NGOs. To make situation worse agriculture development banks here are working at a snail’s pace thus making it very difficult for women farmers to benefit from any existing schemes and policies.
The main aim of our work is to keep women engaged in various livelihood related activities. Such productive activities not only help them earn an income but it also helps in the reduction of stress levels by keeping them occupied. We conduct training and skilling sessions on various aspects in the supply chain of chiili powder production. We also conduct regular counselling and therapy sessions for them which helps them understand and deal with their stress and anxiety.
How did you mobilize women and encourage them to take up farming? What have been the major challenges for you?
The challenges are many and vary in their nature from societal obstacles to institutional hurdles. There was the initial challenge of convincing women and their families to take up farming, When I started working I wasn’t able to rent an office space on the grounds that I am a woman. Many people refused us and agreed to lease us a space only on the condition that I would be accompanied by a male guarantor during lease signing. We have been denied transport facilities by local travel agents on similar grounds.
Also, the institutional bias towards women is rampant in Kashmir. For instance, during the initial days of my ground work I went to the District Industrial Centre for better understanding of local agri-industry set-up only to be told by the officials there that women should do government jobs and not run their own enterprise. This displays the prevalent male chauvinism in the government departments in Kashmir.
From personal front, I had a tough time in convincing my husband to continue my work. My husband works and lives in London and wanted me to move there with him. But on seeing my passion towards my work he gave up on this idea. He now visits me once every two months.
What keeps you motivated and going during difficult days?
The continuous struggle of these rural women of Kashmir to live a dignified life has always been a strong motivation factor for me and this is what keeps me up at nights. It is important for people to know that women in rural regions of Kashmir have very little freedom and control over their lives. It’s a patriarchal society and in some cases the women of the family are not even allowed to work on their family farms, they can only work in their kitchen gardens. On top of that due to the volatile political situation in Kashmir, people and especially women suffer from constant stress, anxiety and depression.
Through my work I not only want them to live a healthy and prosperous life but also want them to realize the importance of their struggle which goes unnoticed so often.
How has support from UnLtd Delhi helped you? What’s your future vision for CHD?
Unltd Delhi has been a great support so far. Its one of the few incubation organizations that supports enterprises in their starting phase. My mentor Ms. Anupama Pain has a good experience of working with small scale farmers and women self help groups. For an entrepreneur it’s essential that they have a mentor with whom they can share their ideas, challenges, successes and failures. I often discuss all these things with my mentor and she always gives me very thorough and constructive feedback.
Due to Kashmir’s political instability, there’s hardly any investments from the private players. Its difficult to get government grants and funding as well. For CHD my hope and vision is to create a sustainable business model that provides consistent livelihood to these women farmers while also giving them an opportunity to do something productive with their time. In the next two years our aim is to set up a co-operative society of these women to make sure that they are able to meet their economic, social and cultural needs in an efficient and sustainable way.