September 15, 2009 / 11:46 AM / in 8 years

Kashmir woman minister heals scars of rebel violence

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Her father and uncle were gunned down by militants and she has survived at least 10 attempts on her life, but the violence has helped Indian Kashmir’s lone woman minister to understand the pain of victims.

<p>Sakina Itoo, Kashmir's minster for Social Welfare, smiles during an interview with Reuters at her office in Srinagar September 14, 2009. REUTERS/Fayaz Kabli</p>

Sakina Itoo, 36, is helping heal the wounds of thousands of orphans and widows, innocent victims of a two-decade anti-India insurgency in the disputed Himalayan region.

“I know their pain and that is why I have pledged to wipe away their tears. Inshallah, I will achieve successes,” the soft-spoken Social Welfare Minister told Reuters in an interview.

“Major steps have been taken to rehabilitate them. Initially, we have identified 5,000 widows and 3,000 orphans.”

There is no official data on the number of widows and orphans of the insurgency involving separatist Muslim militants and Indian troops in Kashmir.

Social activists put the number of orphans as high as 60,000 and say an equal number of widows live in the scenic valley of five million people.

Social activists say the number of women and children left without a breadwinner in their families is mounting with only a fraction of them receiving financial support from the government.

Her ministry has spent about $600,000 through the Militancy Rehabilitation Council in last six months for the rehabilitation of widows and orphans, Itoo said, adding the schemes included monthly pensions to widows and parents of slain militants.

Help also included scholarships for professional studies and school-going orphans, besides financial assistance to handicapped or disabled people.

“It is true the number (of widows and orphans) is increasing day by day. Most of them do not come forward,” said Itoo, who is single.

<p>Sakina Itoo, Kashmir's minster for Social Welfare, attends an interview with Reuters at her office in Srinagar, September 14, 2009. REUTERS/Fayaz Kabli</p>

UNACCOUNTED MISSING

Itoo is the oldest of five sisters, she gave up her medical

studies to enter politics after her father, a former speaker of the state legislature, was killed by Muslim militants in 1995.

“But we cannot punish families of the slain militants. These widows and orphans are innocent,” Itoo said.

<p>Sakina Itoo, Kashmir's minster for Social Welfare, speaks during an interview with Reuters at her office in Srinagar, September 14, 2009. REUTERS/Fayaz Kabli</p>

Not everyone is convinced of the government’s intentions.

Parveena Ahanger head of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), an independent group in Kashmir, is skeptical of the ministry’s programs and says it has not accounted for all those missing during the years of insurgency.

“They only announce schemes. Despite tall claims, government has failed to provide us the whereabouts of 10,000 people who disappeared during militancy,” Ahanger, also the founder of APDP, said.

Itoo, basing her estimates on a Ministry of Social Welfare report, said 2,367 people have disappeared, a figure which is lower than Ahanger’s estimates.

More than 47,000 people have been killed since a revolt against Indian rule broke out in 1989. Separatists put the toll

near 100,000.

The disputed region, the trigger for two of the three wars between India and Pakistan, is claimed by both countries but ruled by them only in part.

Editing by Krittivas Mukherjee and Bill Tarrant

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