They fenced the river, worked on sewing machines, sanitised the town, reopened roadside latrines and held awareness camps. They stood before their men holding up ‘No Entry’ signs to stop them from relieving themselves at the banks of the pristine Suru River. They are not quite done yet. Draped in colourful Hijabs, seemingly delicate yet confident enough to speak their minds, are the members of ‘Kargil Town Women Welfare Committee’ – an all women non-profit organisation working towards empowerment - socially as well as financially. An effort of this magnitude, often taken for granted in a metropolitan city as well, requires a different kind of courage in a region as remote and conservative as Kargil.

Nestled amid the northern sub Himalayan ranges of Jammu and Kashmir, Kargil town rests at a towering altitude of 2704 metres. This valley of immense beauty and culture was virtually unknown to the rest of India until the international neighbours forced it sharply into focus during the Kargil War in 1999. Struggling to reconcile with the losses inflicted during the war, Kargil became a crucial mark on the Indian map. With its newly established links with the rest of the country, Kargil began to abandon its traditional conservative notions and witnessed men and women welcoming change with open arms. A society where educating girls was an alien concept until the late 1980s had now women venturing into every possible arena. Financial empowerment of women gained major significance amongst educated and uneducated women alike. While some joined government services, others took to entrepreneurship, women welfare committees and non governmental organisations. A huge number of women committees/societies and voluntary organisations proliferated in the post-war Kargil which aimed at employing women.

Founded in 2009, ‘Kargil Town Women Welfare Committee’ was one such. The brainchild of 24 year old Parveen Akhtar hailing from a well educated family in rural Pashkum, the Committee was started to offer cloistered homemakers and young dropouts wage earning opportunities.

Over the years, the members of this committee have helped sanitise the town by opening roadside latrines, improving drainage systems and guarding and fencing the riverbank; and even helping install a transformer in the town. With its office centred in one of the members’ houses, this committee also makes a range of jute bags and other products which is sent to the Mata Vaishno Devi Trust and other states, generating some income for its members.

Working relentlessly for the same purpose is Fiza Bano who runs the ‘Tribal Women Welfare Association’ which includes carpet making and wool cleansing, in addition to tailoring and knitting. Started with just five members and a small quantity of wool worth Rs 500, her organisation is now an income generator for nearly 100 women. “I have seen women using mud instead of soap to do the dishes,” laments Fiza.

But there are challenges aplenty. Despite there being government schemes, grants-in-aid for voluntary organisations and particularly for women, these schemes have remained locked up in the policy sheets. Parveen Akhter, who keeps herself updated with these schemes and policies online, claims that the departments responsible for executing these schemes refuse to even disclose them to the committee members. An application sent by the committee members to fetch them some wage earning tasks is disregarded in favour of a male committee member, clearly subscribing to the clichéd gender dichotomies. Before undertaking the sanitation task in town, the Municipal Corporation had been approached for “precisely ten times,” recalls Parveen.

Shamima Firdause, a J & K legislative member, during her 2011 visit to Kargil, sought to lend a helping hand to these women by garnering for them some developmental contracts from the Council and earning them some financial assistance. However, the only response she got for her proposal was a tactless, chauvinistic “Can women really break stones like men!” remark from a senior male official. The next two years were no different. Only recently, another woman legislator was blatantly directed to “not” take up women’s issues in their meetings. And sadly, this directive was received from one of the highest administrative offices in town, headed, not surprisingly, by a male member. Episodes like these bear testimony to the fact that women in Kargil still have a giant leap to take before they can wholly undo the patriarchal knots their society is enmeshed in.

Crores of funds that the Council receives, tribal funds and border funds are all sent out to male societies leaving these women with scarce resources at their disposal. Fiza Bano still awaits her project’s approved which is pending with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs office for three years now. Their call for an All India Handicraft Office in the town and a Committee Hall for women remains unattended to. To top it all is the societal criticism the women have to encounter owing to a conventional, orthodox mindset.

(The writer is a Sanjoy Ghose Media Fellow)

(Charkha Features)