Calling from home

April 19, 2020

In a context where policy implementation remains weak, how does the government’s new helpline to report domestic violence fare?

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of a ‘horrifying global surge’ in domestic violence during the coronavirus crisis and urged governments to step up efforts to prevent violence against women. “We know lockdowns and quarantines are essential to suppressing Covid-19. But they can trap women with abusive partners,” Guterres said in a video message earlier this month.

This prompted governments around the world to take action and establish forums where support can be sought in cases of domestic violence. Pakistan’s human rights ministry too, in a Tweet last week, conceded that lockdowns and quarantine measures often left women and children vulnerable to domestic abuse and violence, which was known to rise during emergencies. The Tweet added that the ministry’s specially launched helpline for women and children to report domestic violence was meant for those feeling unsafe at home or experiencing violence.

Of a total 162 calls received by the Ministry of Human Rights during the first week of its launch, one caller called in to seek help expressing the fear of potential domestic violence. The rest of the callers sought information for food rations and financial assistance points and availability of testing facilities for coronavirus patients, according to the ministry.

The caller who had reached out to seek help relating to domestic violence was provided guidelines and told to approach the helpline again if there was any violence, says Zill-e-Huma, a public relation officer (PRO) of the ministry.

“The caller hasn’t contacted us again,” she adds. She says that the team responsible for the helpline had added the caller’s contact number in the priority list with the reassurance of providing further help and facilitation when and if required.

The helpline is operational from 10 am to 10 pm all through the week. The toll-free helpline is 1099 for landline calls and 0333-9085709 on Whatsapp for both calls and texts.

Former PCSW chairperson Fauzia Viqar hopes that this helpline will be “an effective platform for women to report gender-based violence and provide strong legal aid to those in need”.

She stresses the need to increase public awareness regarding the helpline, and that of providing strong legal aid, referral pathways and teams of focal persons in every related unit to ensure its success.

She says that the government should be appreciated for setting up this helpline “especially at a time when chances of domestic violence have increased due to various push and pull factors”.

PRO Huma says that mobility restrictions to contain the spread of coronavirus could cause incidences of domestic abuses and violence in homes to become more frequent, more severe and more dangerous. The helpline, she says, is there to provide support to victims of violence which is in line with the work that the ministry does.

The domestic violence helpline is operational from 10 am to 10 pm all through the week. The toll-free helpline is 1099 for landline calls and 0333-9085709 on Whatsapp for both calls and texts.

When asked if the ministry arranges free of cost legal assistance, she says the while the ministry doesn’t provide legal aid at present, it connects victims/ survivors to legal experts, aid agencies, shelter homes, non-profit organizations and bar associations for legal support.

“The helpline is a kind of online guideline [forum] for women and children during the current lockdown,” she says.

Nighat Dad, a women’s rights activist, appreciates the setting up of the helpline and adds that for long-term measures to curb domestic violence, it should not only take into account violence against women and children but also other vulnerable communities such as transgender persons.

She hopes that the protection provided by the helpline can be extended beyond physical or sexual assault to cover other kinds of abuse including technological surveillance and cyber crimes such as online blackmailing. She says that violence can take place in different forms and in different spaces: there are various kinds of violence that the government needs to take into account including mental harassment and technological surveillance, online blackmailing, and other forms of infringement upon basic civil rights. Dad says the problem is more complex for rural areas where there is very little awareness about domestic violence. The government should familiarize the rural population with the concept first, she says.

“Violence against marginal groups of society is a long-standing issue. Why is the government taking [such] measures only now? Domestic violence has been on the rise…” she says.

She says that her NGO has been receiving complaints about domestic violence in urban areas – most of these complaints were against immediate family members such as brothers and fathers, and extended family members such as uncles. Most of the complaints were against abuse within families.

She regrets the lack of information and awareness among women about legal aid mechanism, shelter homes and other facilitation and urges the ministry to look into these issues.

“If no steps are taken offline, the helpline is of no use,” says Dad. She adds that there is a need to address mental health issues without gender discrimination to create an environment that is conducive to mental well-being of marginalized communities.

The writer is an investigative journalist based in Islamabad and a PhD aspirant. She tweets @shizrehman

How does the Pakistani government’s new helpline to report domestic violence fare?