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Poverty denied Fatima a match for 4 years, and she is just one in the growing number in Kashmir 

Srinagar, Oct 7: A stone’s throw from the Mirwaiz Manzil at Rajouri Kadal here stands a single-storey house built in sun-baked bricks and old lattice windows.

They talk about her in whispers: “Poor girl has been rejected multiple times. Have you also been sent by some middleman? Don’t tell her we gave you directions to her house,” a neighbour says, fearing it may lead to usual rejection.

Dressed in blue salwar-kameez, round-faced Fatima (name changed), in her late 30s, opens the door with a feeble salaam. She is the only daughter of Ghulam Mohammad (name changed), who sells walnut wood to the furniture manufacturers.

More than four years have passed since he started looking for a match for his daughter. Countless families passed by their home, none wanting to marry Fatima.

“As each year passes, I feel a part of me is gone. I have been dreaming to marry off my daughter, but most of the people who come to see her reject us for being poor and having a run-down house,” said the aged father.

“There were a few families willing, but their demands were too high. Unfortunately, I don’t have the resources to bear the expenses.”

Ghulam Mohammad suffers from multiple ailments and spends half of his monthly income on medicines. Fatima, who attends to the household chores also contributes by doing chain-stitch embroidery work.

“I don’t understand why families are so obsessed with big homes and fancy cars. My health is deteriorating with each passing day and I fear the worst. What will happen to her after I die?” he asks nobody in particular staring blankly at the ceiling.

The old city is full of such sad tales. In a congested locality of Safakadal, Chaidob, another family has a similar story to tell. Hameed Ahmad (name changed), a fruit vendor by profession throws his arms up in despair as he narrates his story.

“My daughter, in her mid-thirties has been rejected more than fifteen times. Imagine the stress she went through. Her only fault is that she belongs to a poor family and doesn’t have concrete big bunglow to show,” laments Hameed.

The usual rant that Hameed’s family has been hearing is “What can they give us in dowry? They have nothing with them.”

Weddings in the valley are becoming more extravagant every year: Fancy decorations, lavish trousseau and opulent jewellery are hallmarks of Kashmiri weddings.

There is tremendous social pressure to spend on weddings. Low levels of education, poverty, and caste-based discrimination compound these pressures.

As a result, many poor families are often unable to meet the increasing demands and wedding pressures.

Consequently, many girls pass their youth without getting married. In some cases, the bride’s family often bears the brunt of the debt.

Despite the 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act, the practice of presenting a dowry, a payment in cash or kind, continues unabated in the valley. Besides, the recent measures announced by the government like guest control law also witnesses zero implementation on ground.

Official figures estimate that in the old city alone, more than 25,000 girls have crossed the usual age of marriages.

In other areas of the valley, the number is also forbiddingly high indicating that 30-40 percent are in their thirties and 10-15 per cent have crossed forties.

Prominent civil society member, Shakeel Qalander acknowledges that it is indeed a grave issue that needs to be addressed.

“Yes, we are aware of the reality. This is because we don’t have a system in place. For instance, we have a system of Zakat, but many don’t pay. If everyone makes their contribution, I am sure the social evils can be waded off,” he said.

The civil society doesn’t have any recent data nor has any survey been conducted to identify such girls of late.

“We have volunteers who help us in identifying the needy ones. Post 2014 floods, we had started an initiative in which the masjid committees were strengthened. They were supposed to collect funds and cater to particular areas. If the same model is replicated everywhere, the problem can be resolved,” said Qalander.

Qalander urged the budding techies to come up with a centralized Zakat foundation system that can be connected to every community and mohalla.

“If this happens, you will see a lot of improvement,” he said.

President Kashmir Economic Alliance (KEA), Mohammad Yasin Khan conceded, “Yes, it is a sorry state of affairs and we as society should collectively work towards ending this problem. The social evils like extravagance in weddings and dowry demands should be condemned by one and all.”

Khan explained, “The business fraternity is trying their best by clubbing with various NGO’s to help such people. I am aware that we are not able to cover every area, but this should be everybody’s concern.”