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Domestic violence during Covid-19

Opinion

May 2, 2020

Ten am to twelve noon was her time. The children had been bundled into the Suzuki pickup off to school, her husband had left for his tailoring shop and she was alone at last. Now, Sakeena could call her mother and savor the morning shows with a hot cup of chai in her hands.

Covid-19 changed all this. For nearly a month now, it has been a whirlwind of noisy children, a cantankerous husband and the thankless task of picking up after everyone.

Theirs is a two room flat in Neelum Colony. In good times, it was crowded with four kids sleeping on the floor of a small 10 by 10 room that, depending on the time of day, served alternately as bedroom, living, or dining room. In Covid-19, it has become an ear-splitting prison cell.

Their days had progressed from blissful freedom to frustration. The anxiety of financial stress had started to settle in. Sakeena now faced the brunt of her children’s trapped exuberance and her husband’s rising abuse. She was locked in a surreal world where no one could hear her cries for help.

Sakeena is one of the hundreds of women tackling the issue of domestic violence during the unprecedented lockdown that Covid-19 has necessitated.

According to the World Health Organization, one out of three women in the world experience physical or sexual violence during their lifetime. 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.

Media and police data show that restricted mobility and financial tensions contribute to rising aggression and cruelty. Throughout the world, nations have seen an alarming rise in abuse during lockdowns. In China’s Hubei province, police reports on domestic violence tripled during the coronavirus outbreak. In Brazil, state-run drop-in centers recorded a 40 percent surge in cases attributed to the Covid-19 isolation. Italy saw its first domestic violence fatality five days after its lockdown began.

Similarly, a quick overview of Pakistan’s nationwide police records show a rising trend in domestic and child abuse during the lockdown. Women, already vulnerable in a patriarchal society such as ours, now confront the additional burden of physical entrapment and possible harm.

Lockdowns force victims like Sakeena to remain confined in close proximity with their abusers, unable to call for help without being overheard and, with little or no option of escape to friends or family.

The inability to reach out for help is often reflected in a visible decrease of calls to helplines, something that was seen in Italy and is now being seen in Pakistan as well. It is in such situations that all avenues of communication and support must be kept open for women victims of violence.

Unfortunately, in Pakistan, most social welfare helplines at the provincial level have been shut down during Covid-19. While the 15 police helpline and the Ministry of Human Rights Helpline 1099 are available to provide referral, legal advice and actual physical recovery, absolute numbers show that they are not being used extensively enough.

The Ministry of Human Rights’ 1099 helpline which receives approximately 40,000 calls a month, received only 13 calls on Gender Based Violence (GBV) in March 2020. These calls do not correlate with actual police figures on gender based violence in the country. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, only 25 calls on GBV were received at the 15 helpline during March 2020, while police records show that 399 cases of murder against women have been reported/registered in the same period. Similarly, police records in Sindh show an increasing trend in violence against women with some ten cases of karo-kari registered in March alone.

These alarming figures log only those cases where women or third party complainants are able to seek help or criminal retribution. It is therefore paramount that newer technologies and systems be put in place to increase women’s accessibility to support services such as helplines and shelters. The Ministry of Human Rights is already working to develop a secret code and prompting system that allows victims to punch in specific numbers in case they are in trouble and unable to speak. Once the number is pressed, officials at the MoHR helpline will be alerted to the fact that the phone call is a silent cry for help.

Similarly, shelters throughout the country must remain open for victims and house them within appropriate standards of social distancing and WHO health protocols. It is sad that many of the provincial Darul Amans and shelters are limiting new entrants due to fears of Covid-19. SOPs must link shelters and Darul Amans with government quarantine centers and hospitals. Rapid testing facilities, like recently done by Getz Pharma for all its 1300 employees, should similarly be available for victims in need of urgent refuge.

Strong policy initiatives are essential to address the increased risk of violence to women and children in quarantine. Activists in the UK and Italy have advocated special police powers to evict perpetrators from homes for the duration of the lockdown, and for authorities to waive court fees for protection orders. In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morisson informed of a 75 percent rise in Google searches for ‘Help’ since the start of Covid-19. France has said it would pay for hotel rooms for victims of domestic violence and open pop-up counselling centers after figures showed that abuse cases had soared during lockdown.

In Pakistan, we must act fast and in national synergy. Greater awareness of support systems available to women must be disseminated at all levels. The federal and provincial governments must work in tandem, with empathy and with technology, to support our women in these difficult times. Community support systems, neighbours and civil society play a strong role in identifying local issues. They must be alerted and sensitized to the growing problem of gender-based violence. The Ministry of Human Rights has already notified district committees in ICT to act as watchdogs for violence against children. Such committees may be replicated to identify abuse in the provinces as well.

Sufficient use must also be made of Pakistan’s extensive network of lady health workers (LHWs) who could well be deployed to spread awareness on Covid-19 as well as distribute much needed government rations.

Despite the impending cloud of economic recession, it is also important that governments make special budgetary and institutional provisions for when quarantines are lifted and when women are finally able to go out and seek legal, medical or psychological redress.

Women are the backbone of our society. It is time they be acknowledged as such. Interventions are essential to address widespread and growing abuse and gender subordination. It is time to let our women know that they are not alone with their challenges but that the government and institutions are solidly behind them.

The writer is federal secretary, Ministry of Human Rights.