The year 2020 was a tough one with Covid-19 spreading throughout the country, putting stress on the existing health system, playing havoc with people’s health and claiming thousands of precious lives. The pandemic affected every sector and segment of life throughout the world. In Pakistan, things were not much different.
Being the caregivers and responsible for their household chores, the workload increased for women, especially during lockdowns when the family members had to stay indoors. An additional challenge for women of the house was to manage household expenses in a crisis situation where a large number of men had lost their jobs. The women who were doing informal work to supplement the family income were laid off by their employers which added to the miseries of the families.
If we look back at 2020 with a focus on women, we find there were a combination of depressing news, tales of resilience and achievements, accounts of those who had survived and examples of heroic contributions and sacrifices to save the health and lives of others. This week You! takes a closer look into some important aspects of the year that have particularly impacted the women, a reflective of the bigger picture of how the year 2020 was for women…
Crime against women on the rise
In the first quarter of the year, disturbing news was shared by the national media. It was quoted in a report titled, Tracking Crimes against People - A Numeric Tale of Human (In) Security, which was released by Sustainable Social Development Organisation (SSDO) that there was a 200 per cent increase in cases of violence against women in Pakistan in the past three months. The report, based on print media coverage of such incidents during this period, also showed that the crime rate kept fluctuating – 73 per cent drop was witnessed during the month of February but a spike of up to 360 per cent was witnessed during the month of March 2020.
This data and information collected from national and provincial dailies identified child abuse, child labour, domestic abuse, kidnapping, rape, violence against women (VAW) and murder as the major crimes against women and children. Besides, it was observed that domestic violence against women had also increased during the pandemic. The men who were under severe mental stress in these testing times were aggressive towards women in the family. Some help-lines for violence against women experienced a major spike in complaints. It is believed that the cases that haven’t been reported are even higher in number.
According to human rights organisations, women working in the informal sector were most impacted by domestic violence during the pandemic. They say many have lost their jobs and are confined to small homes where distancing from abusive relatives is not possible. Government officials reported a 25 per cent increase in domestic violence incidents during the lockdown across Punjab province, with authorities registering 3,217 cases between March and May.
Aurat March gained momentum
Like every year, thousands of Pakistani women came out on streets on March 8th to join the Aurat March which has become a mega event in the country. It will not be an overstatement if we say it is one of the largest demonstrations held across the country to press for women’s rights. The protesters made different demands including gender equality, minimum wages for the working class, and equal wages for women and men doing same amount of work, end to sexual harassment and gender-based violence, independence for women regarding matters pertaining to their lives. The demands were also made in the light of the Global Gender Gap Index Report 2020 of the World Economic Forum which ranked Pakistan 151st out of the 153 countries it evaluated.
It was not as smooth sailing for the women organising and participating in the Aurat March as it was challenged in courts for “being against Pakistan's culture and Islamic teachings.” However, the petitions were dismissed and the march got a go-ahead. Aurat March got global coverage and attention because of the resistance they faced and the numbers the organisers were able to register. The attendance was high also for the reason that Aurat March was organised on International Women’s Day when gatherings, events, protests, processions are held in large numbers.
Financial inclusion of women
A World Bank report released in 2020 said that only 11 per cent of women have access to overall financial services in Pakistan as compared to 21 per cent of men. This means around 100 million Pakistani adults do not have access to formal financial services, hinting at their use of conventional means for their financial management. The stress of the report was on the need for taking necessary measures and making women open bank accounts and start using banking channels. The report raised concerns on the matter since women are traditionally responsible for domestic affairs in Pakistani households and their economic empowerment is central to an empowered family. In Pakistan, women open bank accounts when it is extremely essential to that. For example, they do this when they need inherited assets transferred to them; have to receive financial support like that under Ehsaas programme or for transfer of salary (in case of formally employed women).
The report highlighted that as more and more women are entering the workforce and taking up important positions in the professional field, their financial management needs have increased manifold.
The incredible women frontliners making their mark
Throughout the year female doctors and paramedics were seen as frontline workers during the pandemic. Many of them lost their lives while saving trying to save the others’. A report Gender Impact of COVID-19 in Pakistan: Contextual Analysis and the Way Forward by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) sheds light on this aspect. Its findings follows as: “Women constitute almost 70 per cent of the frontline health workers, including 96,000 lady health workers, 22 28,000 community midwives, approximately 62,651 nurses and a considerable number of female doctors. In Pakistan, these health workers, in the absence of proper safety gear and health facilities’ lack of preparedness, are at a heightened risk of infection when compared to the rest of the population.
“Additionally, given that women play a disproportionate role in household management, infection of female health workers could risk spreading illness to more at-risk groups – such as older persons and children – within health workers’ families. Women’s essential role as frontline health responders should be recognised not by imposing restrictions on their essential work, but rather by prioritising that they receive the safety equipment needed to effectively mitigate the risks of COVID-19 infection.”
The IFES reports that it is important to recognise the incredible role that these women health workers play as frontline workers countering COVID-19 in their communities – a scenario that demonstrates women’s leadership in Pakistan.
Informal sector women workers and the pandemic
The pandemic has had a large impact on women who work in the informal sectors of Pakistan’s economy. And most women in Pakistan work in this sector, where they already have lower pays, longer work hours, irregular coverage of benefits, no job security and no social protections. Non-essential work shutdowns forced almost all of them to stay at home, and many did not get paid for the period they were furloughed.
During the pandemic, informal sector women workers suffered the most as most of them were laid off in one go and there were no liabilities on part of employers. Unfortunately, the government does not have the data of the informal sector workers and that is why they could not be located and accommodated under the Ehsaas Programme of the Government of Pakistan.
The IFES report, cited above, also asserts that the people expected to be the most affected by this crisis include workers in the informal sector and daily wage earners. In Pakistan, the report says, Human Rights Watch has warned authorities that social distancing, quarantine and the closure of businesses will have enormous economic consequences for garment and textile workers, domestic workers and home-based workers, the majority of whom are women, and has urged the government to take urgent steps to mitigate the economic impact.
“The Working Women’s Helpline estimates there are around 20 million home-based workers in Pakistan, of which 12 million are women, although according to some unofficial estimates, women make up as much as 75 per cent of the informal labour force. Most of these domestic and informal workers are not registered with the Social Welfare Department and do not have any legal coverage, which impacts their ability to claim relief from the government. Women also disproportionately hold jobs in industries with poor protection, such as lack of paid family leave and paid sick leave. There is the added dimension of the disproportionate impact of domestic workers’ and caregivers’ inability to provide in-home care to people with disabilities who rely on this support,” the report adds.
The much-needed anti-rape legislation
Towards the end of the year, there was an encouraging news about strict anti-rape legislation with the aim to punish rapists and create deterrence for others. President Alvi passed an ordinance aimed at ensuring rape trials are completed within four months, while also setting up a national sex offender registry. The new ordinance will set up special courts to try cases of sexual abuse of women and children, requiring all proceedings to be completed in time. It also establishes a special government cell to expedite the processing of legal cases, giving it the power to intervene and order medical examinations of rape survivors within six hours of a complaint being registered. A lack of adequate medical evidence has often been at the heart of acquittals in rape cases in the country.
While everyone was faced with unprecedented challenges, women bore the brunt of the economic and social fallout of COVID-19. However, as we enter 2021, here’s hoping to see more progress towards inclusivity of women on the economic and legislative front.