Wednesday July 06, 2022

Dealing with VAW

June 27, 2020

Cases of violence against women constantly require intervention: pushback against the police’s harassment of complainants and refusal to register their cases, immediate legal assistance and logistical arrangements to cater to court visits, shelter and safety needs.

Private citizens often end up as first responders, bearing the burden because the state’s response is lacking. What is required across the country is a functional mechanism to address violence against women and children.

When women attempt to leave a domestically violent situation, there are several concerns. Primary among them is: where will they go? While shelters do exist across cities, not everybody is aware of them, knows how to get there or can. Many questions loom. Can a woman walk into a shelter at any hour? Does she require a court order? Can she enter and leave the shelter at will, especially if enrolled in a university or has a job? Will she have access to a phone? If she has children, can they stay with her, including male children? How long can she stay at the shelter for?

Clarity is critical to arrive at the ultimate decision to leave. And attention is needed regarding measures such as increasing the capacity of the existing shelters, adding family quarters, setting up half-way homes and providing low-cost and safe accommodation for women who have some means and do not want to reside in a shelter.

Helplines that cater to complaints of violence need to be widely advertised and accessible 24/7. They need to function as response numbers, not just information centres. Those operating the helplines need to be equipped to deal with queries instantly instead of passing the line on to others.

In many instances, people call when there is an emergency and immediate information and action is required. Asking callers to hold – when they get through – transferring them or telling them someone will call them back is unhelpful as they may not get access to a phone again. Helplines also need to facilitate complainants through the next stages by contacting relevant authorities rather than just providing information. Developing situations require constant follow-up until action is initiated, the affected person is recovered and transferred to a safe location or facilitated through legal assistance.

Often the issue of jurisdiction arises. If a case falls beyond the jurisdiction of a certain police station, department or commission, there should be a network in place so that without delay, the case can be referred to the relevant station and body. Since written applications are required to initiate the recovery process, a template should be made available which can be used by complainants or those making requests on their behalf, also accounting for situations when such complainants may not be family members.

In the event a victim makes the call herself but cannot provide anything in writing to initiate recovery, remedies around this must be devised.

Often, they do not have access to phones or other modes of communication. It is therefore essential to treat every complaint with seriousness, and act using available information where possible, rather than waiting or burdening them with arduous bureaucratic processes. There is always the danger of grievous harm and even death if delays occur. The victim can also be moved from the known location during this time or lose any way of being able to reach out again.

Many complaints are received after working hours, therefore from helplines to personnel in relevant ministries, departments and commissions – all need to be available around the clock, on a rotational basis to deal with complaints. Same applies for on-duty magistrates who are often not available during late hours. Once a victim is recovered by the police, she is taken to the thana and made to submit a statement. The police must then produce her before a magistrate.

Some victims need immediate medical attention while others suffer from emotional and psychological distress. They require access to a medico-legal officer and a counselor. Making them wait at thanas or in court for prolonged periods is detrimental to their well-being and compromises their ability to face the hurdles ahead. They should spend the least amount of time in a thana or court and, instead, either be moved to a shelter or place of choice by resolving all legal formalities swiftly. Where they go should be their choice. Adult women cannot – and should not – be treated as minors, handed over to families who are often part of the problem or made to go to shelters against their will.

Whether it is the relevant ministry, department or commission, there need to be personnel on ground who can assist complainants and victims, and oversee the many stages between recovery and shelter – whether state or private accommodation. Transport from the place of recovery to the thana, hospital, court and final accommodation with adequate security, needs to be facilitated by them.

When recovered by the police, it is necessary for someone to accompany women to the thana. A legal officer should be present to oversee all applications and statements, before they are signed, whether at the thana or before a magistrate, so no one pressurizes them into saying, writing or signing anything against their wishes – which is often the attempt by the police.

Discretion needs to be exercised when handling their information. Often leaks which emanate at the thana level, inform the accused party of the complainant’s whereabouts and in many cases this has led to them showing up outside the thana, in court or following complainants to locations that are meant to be at a safe distance and unknown to them.

Private citizens constantly facilitate complainants and push relevant officials to simply do their job. But it is the state that needs to step up, put effective mechanisms in place, facilitate complainants and act in accordance with the law.

The writer is a Karachi-based journalist and a member of the Women’s Action Forum - Karachi chapter.

Twitter: @FariehaAziz