Witnessing the killing of a parent is the most traumatic childhood experience.
Ayat, 8, dedicatedly arranges bottle caps on mud bricks as she plays with neighbourhood girls of her age. She holds close her three-year-old brother Imaad. “Circumstances have made her insecure about Imaad and she doesn’t trust anyone when it comes to him,” says Nasreen, Ayat’s grandmother.
“Sometimes she wakes up in the dead of the night and angrily asks about her mother,” she says. “Her mother’s death has snatched the innocence of her childhood.”
Two years ago, Ayat’s mother was allegedly set ablaze by her in-laws. According to reports, she had suffered 80 per cent burns and died a week after she was admitted in a hospital in Srinagar. Since then, Ayat’s father, along with her paternal grandparents, are in jail while the young girl and her brother are living at their maternal home in Badaran, Aishmuqam.
“She often locks herself inside the room and cries for days, not knowing if she misses her father or mother,” says a visibly devastated Nasreen.
Mother’s death and father’s imprisonment have ended the idea of a real family in Ayat’s life and separated her from friends and school. Ayat, who earlier studied in a private school, now studies in a government-run school near her grandmother’s home. “I miss my home,” says Ayat.
“I had a teddy bear bag and my favourite pink colour dress there. My best friends in my previous school, Seerat and Insha, never came here to play with me. Perhaps they don’t know my address now. But, I often see them in my dreams,” she says, misery writ large on her innocent face.
Kashmir has witnessed a serious increase in reported cases of domestic violence in recent years. In some cases, the violence culminates in the death of victims, leaving a tremendous impact on the psyche of children. Researchers have found that children who get exposed to domestic abuse are emotionally weak and experience feeling of insecurity. It has an impact on the perception of the children.
According to a survey released by the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) in 2020, 9.6 per cent of the women in the age group of 18-49 experienced domestic violence. A total number of 3376 cases of violence were registered from October 2017 till December 2020, which can be the tip of the ice-berg as fewer incidents are reported in the region.
“It is extremely offensive for children to witness parental discord. I see such cases every day,” says Wasim Kakroo, a child psychologist and mental health therapist at the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Srinagar.
“Among every ten kids experiencing depression or trauma, five have a history of parental discord. The violence which these kids witness at home has a long-term impact on their emotional health,” he says.
A child witnessing the killing of a parent, says Kakroo, is the biggest adverse childhood experience. “Such experiences often damage the sense of self in a child and make them emotionally vulnerable. It can have a lifelong impact on a child when experienced at an early age and it leads to anxiety disorder and depression.”
In a gloomy room with a broken window, Danish, 11, watches his favourite cartoon show. Glued to the screen, he suddenly kicks the phone and tries to hide his face with a cushion. He anxiously hits his knees with his hands and screams.
Taja Begum, Danish’s grandmother, rushes into the room to console him. She takes him in her arms, kisses his forehead and wipes the sweat on his face with her scarf. This is not for the first time, says Begum, that Danish has experienced such a condition. “He has been struggling with a racing heart and anxious thoughts since he witnessed the killing of his mother,” she says.
Begum says she craves to see him laugh and play with other kids. “He is emotionally very fragile. He is scared of small things. He has been a witness to his mother’s victimhood. At times, he suddenly acts weird and asks about his father,” says Begum.
In the first week of March 2020, schools in Kashmir resumed after a long shutdown following the revocation of Article 370 that was followed by winter vacation. Danish’s mother, Hafeeza , 34, had ironed his uniform but she never saw him wear it again.
Next day, Hafeeza was declared dead at District Hospital Anantnag allegedly after taking poisonous substances. Her family however claims that “she was brutally murdered.” It took five months for the family to register an FIR.
“That night, mummy was crying and I slept in her arms. When I opened my eyes, mummy and Abuji (father) were arguing. Soon, Abu ji stood up and started beating her. She cried. Then, he banged her head repeatedly against the wall. I saw blood oozing from her head and she fell down,” says a petrified Danish. “I called her repeatedly but she didn’t respond.”
He narrates that his father grabbed him and warned: “Your mother is dead but don’t reveal the incident to anyone, otherwise I will kill you too.”
Married for ten years, Hafeeza often complained of abuse at the hands of her husband. Initially, her mother and sisters didn’t pay heed expecting the couple to work it out. “Just a few months into her marriage, she showed me her burqa and said how her husband choked her with it, but I suggested to her to be patient and compromise,” laments Begum.
Danish doesn’t like being related to his father. “He is not my father. He is the killer of my mother.”
Hafeeza’s elder sister pats his head and says: “He is more mature than his age. He has witnessed miseries since his birth. The hardships have made him sensitive as the suffering began too early for him.”
(Names in the story have been changed.)