• Safina Nabi
  • Publish Date: Nov 24 2017 8:26PM
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  • Updated Date: Nov 24 2017 8:26PM

Do our orphans get the care and institutional support they deserve?


One rainy afternoon last spring, 25 girls fill a medium-sized room at Markazi Falahi Masturat, an orphanage in Anantnag, South Kashmir. Scribbling in their notebooks, the girls look keen to finish their homework before the light fades. Not Fatima.

Dressed in a black cotton salwar kameez and silk headscarf, she stands out for not wearing a pheran. She is hesitant to talk. So, I ask other girls about their lives, their families and how they came to the orphanage, all the while hoping Fatima would overcome her inhibition.

When she finally opens up, her sweet voice lulls the room. Inside the shy 11-year-old girl lives a talented singer, whose songs, it turns out, bind this group of girls and their caretakers into a family. For the staff and a few volunteers who work with these children, aged four to 16, Fatima is a bundle of “positive energy”.  

Why doesn’t she wear a pheran like the other girls? “I love the wind touching my face and body. It makes me fresh and happy.”

“What else makes you happy?” 

“Playing cricket and singing”.

“Can you sing a song for us?” 

Fatima is not sure if she should. The warden, Latiefa Akhter, joins me in encouraging her. “She loves to sing Kashmiri songs. And others sing along with her,” Latiefa says. “It turns into a chorus every night”.

As Fatima picks up a song, her eyes light up and a smile adorns her face. Soon, the other girls join in a chorus. 

But Fatima’s songs are not of happiness. They reflect her hidden pain, and maybe of all these others girls who have lost one or both their parents.

Meaal wajan meal che yewan nazare,

Yess ne aasan sue che rozan nazare.

Fathers come visiting their daughters, 

Those who lost fathers, keep waiting.

“She remembers several Kashmiri songs by heart and we are surprised every time she sings a new song without a mistake,” Latiefa say.

Fatima came to the orphanage about three years ago after her father, a Hizb-ul-Mujahideen militant, was killed in a gunbattle with the military. The first few weeks, her classmates say, she cried every evening. Saima Jan, 16, who lost her father in similar circumstances, says Fatima would sob herself to sleep.

“I love humming and one day when Fatima was sobbing, I took her in my lap and started humming to her and she calmed down,” says Saima, the oldest of the girls. “Slowly, with time, she got used to all of us and started liking it here.”

Still, she longs for her mother. An unmistakable gesture suggests as much: as we talk, Fatima touches my face with her hands, as a child would her mother’s.

Away from home, Fatima says she looks up to Saima for guidance. “We are all friends, but I am close to Saima and Shabnum.” 

The girls are all admitted in different private and government schools, but they need tutoring. “Fatima is bright, good in maths and science, but at times she has difficulties,” says Saima, who teaches Fatima after school or when she needs help.

“Both of us love science and mathematics,” Fatima says. “But when Saima is unable to help, there is no one else to go to.”

The J&K government’s Social Welfare Department had deputed two tutors to the orphanage but they stopped coming to work since the 2016 uprising. “They used to come here from the nearby village and teach these kids art and help them in homework,” says Latiefa.

Lack of “parental attention” is just one of the issues the orphans face. Most of the children have one or the other fear – of heights, noise, darkness. Yet, not a single medical examination has been conducted in this orphanage since 2013.

“These kids suffer from different phobias; fear of darkness is the most common. These fears generally arise when parents die in an accident, or due to violence. They have an idea that their parents are in the grave, which is darkness,” says Rao Farman Ali, author of the book Kashmir: Orphans, Nurture and Challenges’.

The past quarter century of armed conflict has produced a large number of orphans in Jammu and Kashmir. A survey conducted by the voluntary organisation in 2014 put their number at around 15,000. Others put it as high as 1,00,000.

“Among the orphans of armed conflict, there is classically a different fear which later turns into hate. In psychological terms, it is known as politicophobia,” Rao says. “It needs urgent attention like group therapy and community engagement. Sports activities are required in these orphanages to engage and help these children to come out of these fears.”

As orphanages struggle to provide the means that can help orphans come out of their traumas, experts are calling for alternative structures and systems of care. “Orphanages might have been the need of the hour. Things happened so fast in Kashmir that we never thought of it and we actually had to have these structures,” says Arshad Hussain, associate professor of psychiatry. He says it is time to evaluate whether orphanages “are making the lives of orphans better, both physically and psychologically.”