Isma has everything that would fit a matrimonial advertisement. She is a high-ranking officer in the Jammu and Kashmir education department with a MA in English and Education. She is beautiful; comes from a reputed family; is proficient in household work; and has strong moral and religious values. But Isma has failed to find a life partner.

Isma is 45. Her family is exhausted finding her a match and has dropped the idea. Besides bringing endless distress to her, Isma's delayed marriage blocked the marital settlement of her two brothers, both engineers by profession and in the forties. "Culturally, the girl is first married in a family," says Farhat, Isma's cousin. One of Isma's brothers was recently engaged after considerable efforts.

Isma, whose father is a businessman, could have wedded early in the usual way, except that "her parents were too hysterical about getting her married to only a doctor or engineer," says Farhat. While they waited for the best doctor/engineer, Isma crossed the connubial age.

In Parveena Jan's case, the death of her only brother became a turning point in her life. Parveena Jan is over fifty and unmarried. Parveena's brother joined militancy in the early 1990s and was killed in an ambush. Having lost her father in school, Parveena took responsibility of the family and married off her younger sister.

"By the time she had attended to all her duties, her marital age passed," rues Parveena's maternal aunt. Parveena is a lecture in a Srinagar college and is soon to join mainstream politics.

More than half of Kashmiri men and women are unmarried. A study conducted by the Department of Sociology of the University of Kashmir puts the percentage of the state's unmarried population at 55 (numbering 8,97,289 in the age bracket of 20-35) based on the census data of 30 years. This percentage is significantly higher than the national average of 49 per cent. Single men (54.7 per cent of the total population) outnumber unwed women (45.12 per cent).

Social scientists attribute this trend largely to the 23 years of conflict which continues to affect lives in the Kashmir Valley. "People of Kashmir have passed through a very bad phase, suffering political upheavals, insecurity, killings and violence," says Professor B.A.Dabla, sociologist at the University of Kashmir and the principal investigator of the study described above. "It has a direct bearing on the social life of people."

Take the example of 38-year-old Arif. Conflict destroyed his childhood and detained him from living his own life. After his elder brother, a militant, was killed and his father died of heart attack, Arif shouldered family responsibilities. He had to earn a living and care for his mother and two younger sisters.

Fortunately, Arif educated himself to master's level. "But the burden of responsibilities never gave me a chance to think of my own life," says Arif, who is reluctant to talk on this issue. "I continue to serve my family, without starting my own."

"I never got time for myself," he adds.

Dabla says there are scores like Arif. "So many families lost members which brought unrelieved pressure on children and huge responsibilities," he says. "Marriage became the last priority." But conflict is not the sole reason. Socio-economic conditions, unemployment and dowry have kept many single. Then there is the trend among youth to study and settle in careers before contemplating marriage. "By the time they are settled," says Rafia Amin, a research scholar in Sociology, "their marital age passes and they are unable to find relevant matches."

Certainly, those that are religious wed young and there is the contrary growth of love marriages among westernized youth. Shabana Khan who is a PRO in a private firm in Delhi says, "I want to marry a guy I know. It is impossible for me to trust a stranger." But for a majority in Jammu and Kashmir, such choices remain illusory.