In recent decades, scientists have won many battles against viruses and diseases with vaccines, antiviral drugs and sometimes with control and precautionary measures. Even the deadliest viruses have been curbed, if not diminished with time. Currently, this battle is on-going with the novel coronavirus – COVID-19. The human loss caused by the virus has led to grief and misery around the world. But, with hopes of the scientific developments, we aim to overcome these fatal situations.
Unfortunately, there is another ‘plague’ that continues to thrive in our society, despite the fact that there are laws against it – domestic violence. In addition to its direct impact on people’s health, this pandemic has unleashed a perfect storm of conditions that may increase the rate of domestic violence.
According to World Health Organization, one in three women around the world will experience some sort of domestic violence, mostly from a partner or spouse. Further attesting this, UN Women states that globally 243 million women and girls aged 15-49 have been subjected to sexual and/or physical violence perpetrated by an intimate partner in the previous 12 months. The situation is even graver in times of crisis. Extended periods of quarantine breed anxiety and depression. When people feel powerless in one area of their lives, they often seek to establish more power over other areas. This is particularly alarming in situations of domestic violence because domestic abuse is, essentially, an effort by one partner to dominate and establish psychological, emotional, physical and sexual control over the other partner.
In Pakistan, we were already struggling with the issue of domestic violence. As per a study published in 2019, Pakistan ranks as the 6th most dangerous country in the world for women. Even though the lockdown in country has eased at the moment, there continues to be a rise in domestic violence and abuse cases. Case in point, last month, a 48-year-old man in Peshawar’s Tehkal area opened fire in rage over the amount of noise the children were making, killing his seven-year-old niece. In the same month, another case emerged where a man killed his wife of two years for not serving him hot food during sehri.
It is imperative to note that tracking the pandemic’s actual effects on domestic violence is nearly impossible. Many people who experience abuse don’t report it through official channels. Stigma and fear of retribution are just a few of the reasons someone wouldn’t contact the police. Because of that, we don’t have accurate data showing domestic violence incidence in ‘normal’ times, let alone now. So, this just scratches the surface of the issue.
Bedari – a national level NGO in Pakistan working with women and children for the promotion and protection of their human rights – confirms this fact. On an average, the organisation received around 34-40 calls per month. As of recently, the number of calls has almost doubled. From March 28th to April 21th, the organisation received 81 cases from different districts across the country. In January 2020, there were 25 cases, 30 cases in February and 25 cases till March 27th, 2020. Two of the worst cases scenario calls they received came from a woman whose husband struck her face with a jug while another woman was pushed so forcefully that her head hit the bed and she suffered injuries on her back.
According to Bedari, women are facing grave issues because they have to work overtime during the lockdown without a break. Since the men and the children are at home all the time, it adds to their burden. And, some women have to take care of the elderly as well. Women are having a hard time finding some personal space or a safe space to communicate with their family or loved ones. This lack of emotional support is also taking a toll on their mental health, such as depression. In this tough time, it is necessary that women should be assisted with their household responsibility. Especially, the husbands should cooperate and also involve children in healthy activities in order to cope with the current situation.
Similarly, Mehnaz Rehman, Resident Director of Aurat Foundation (an organisation aimed at empowering women in all walks of life) tells, “Domestic violence and violence against women is very common in our society due to the patriarchal structure and attitudes. We tried to bring change through education in big cities but we were unable to get rid of the flawed traditions. Moreover, it is obvious when a lockdown is imposed in an already dreadful situation, the crises will only increase because the abuser will be at home 24/7. He will feel angry and frustrated and the only place to vent it out would be on his wife and children.” Regarding the number of cases, she informs, “It is difficult to get the exact number of cases at the moment but it is a worldwide concern that gender-based violence has increased severely under the lockdown.”
Women’s Action Forum has also stepped forward and rolled out a press release voicing the issues being faced by women at home. To combat this crisis, they have requested the CM to build more safe houses and shelters for these women victims.
Social isolation, for example, is one of the most common tactics used by abusers to distance survivors from their support networks, and now physical isolation is government-sanctioned. Unemployment claims are hitting historic highs, as are levels of economic anxiety; both of these circumstances are linked to a higher incidence of domestic violence. Staying indoors has become the basic reason for abusers to vent their frustration on women. Dependency, shame, lack of educational, moral and societal support deters women and girls facing domestic violence to walk out of such situations or do something about them. Men who are chronic abusers have more opportunity to show how ‘powerful’ they are through such appalling and horrible practices.
Moreover, our society’s patriarchal structure is believed fuel this fire. The lack of awareness, lack of support and guidance, and fear clouding the victims of domestic abuse has shielded abusers for years. There are women who prefer dying than speaking up due to the fear of bringing ‘dishonour’ to their families. Most women are taught that divorce will forever ‘taint’ their image, which is why many women suffer through abusive relationships that sometimes come at a fatal cost. Society empathises more with the abusers than the victim and these morbid concepts are often shrouded in the name of religion. Such ideas have been passed over from generations and most of them were taught by women as they were accustomed to suppress their true feelings.
If, and when women walk out of abusive homes and relationships, the trauma, mental and physical agony can stay with them for the rest of their lives. Their mind and body are forever changed by the brutal experiences they face at the hands of the people they lived with. Unfortunately, the highest numbers of domestic violence cases are in intimate relations, marriages and partnerships.
Dr Sobia Aftab, Associate Professor and Consultant Clinical Psychologist at the Institute of Clinical Psychology, University of Karachi shares, “The emerging cases of domestic abuse are due to confinement. Generally, domestic violence and abuse always spike whenever the family members have more time to spend together, be it on vacations or holidays. Due to the current lockdown, there is an increased and constant exposure of victims to perpetrators or abusers. When we receive cases of violence and abuse in everyday life, we suggest them to find a temporary escape in order to de-escalate the situation. But these days the victims cannot walk out or escape a violent situation with ease.”
Dr Sobia further adds, “The experience of domestic violence during the pandemic can be psychologically and emotionally more overwhelming. While the cases might differ, but I suggest that victims should maintain social distance from perpetrators by keeping themselves busy in chores or other activities. They can remain occupied with their hobbies and avoid confrontation with their abusers.”
In the wake of lockdowns and the domestic violence crises, UN Secretary General Antonia Guterres urged governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic. Appealing for peace at homes around the world, he stated, “Violence is not confined to the battlefield. For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest, in their own homes.” Describing the rise in domestic violence as “horrifying,” he urged all governments “to make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for COVID-19.” As the rest of the world, the government of Pakistan has also established a helpline to protect women and children from abuse and violence – helpline 1099 and also through call/text on exclusive WhatsApp number 0333-9085709. Managed by the Ministry of Human Rights, the helpline aims at aiding victims at this crucial time of pandemic.