A shadow pandemic

December 13, 2020

The effects of Covid-19 have turned gender-based violence into a shadow pandemic

World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report reveals that gender parity in the world stands at 68.6 percent. The disturbing fact is that out of 158 countries, Pakistan stands at 151st (i.e., among the worst 10 performers). It can be argued that with structurally endorsed gender-based violence (GBV), being a girl or a woman was never easy in Pakistan. However, Covid-19 has further aggravated this situation. GBV in Pakistan prevails across cultures, economic status and ethnicity.

Besides its health effects, Covid-19 has resulted in an economic strain with millions of women out of jobs, and much more helplessly trying to cope with a decline in their family income. Economic vulnerabilities weaken women’s position in society and make them further vulnerable to domestic violence, rape, workplace harassment, abuse and psychological health issues.

The above-mentioned effects of Covid-19 have turned GBV into a shadow pandemic. Structurally embedded patriarchal values in our society which are exercised through institutionalised restrictive codes of behaviour for women and girls, ideology associating family honour to female virtue, and structural discrimination against women and girls further aggravate GBV.

The government, while trying to respond to Covid-19, seems helpless in responding to this shadow pandemic due to structural, procedural, financial, and capacity gaps at various levels.

It is not that we have any dearth of laws to curb GBV. The real challenge in Pakistan is to enforce those laws. For instance, the justice system seems to fail the victims of rape and harassment. The motorway gang rape near Lahore on September 7 was a heinous crime in itself; the fact that the police chief held the victim responsible for her fate reinforces that in Pakistan safety of women is linked to them confining in their homes.

Another example of structural discrimination against women in rape cases is the role that police often play by facilitating settlement between the rapists and rape victims. One often hears the complaints that police are reluctant to register rape and harassment complaints. Very often, the complainant is judged by her “moral character”.

The ordeal of the rape victim does not end there as investigation methods to determine whether a woman/girl was actually raped are agonising. It was only in November that the Punjab government did away with the “two-finger test” for rape and sexual violence survivors. In this context, introducing harsher punishments to curb sexual violence would remain ineffective until the justice system is sensitised for zero tolerance against GBV.

While Covid-19 has compelled governments the world over to bring social sector development back on their radar, they are still not sensitised enough to bring GBV on their radar.

Not all GBVs are physical in nature. A new form of violence is subjecting women and girls to online trolling. Pakistan’s problem of cyber bullying, trolling and online harassment (on Facebook, Twitter, Ticktock, Instagram and other social media platforms) has become more apparent and rampant.

In the shadow pandemic, online trolling is on the rise because people are spending a lot of time online. Unfortunately, abusers can get exceptionally creative. The shadow pandemic of online trolling did not spare even some strong women, such as politicians and journalists.

The situation deteriorated to the extent that the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights had to hold a hearing on online trolling of women journalists. The lockdown season in Pakistan has been accompanied with a locking down of mouths and minds of women and girls. In a highly polarised society, they utter any word “for or against” any opinion, leader, or ideology and the result is their online character assassination.

Coping with Covid-19, taking care of health, social protection, and economy is such an expensive business that the government finds its coffers dry when it comes to fighting against the above-mentioned gender-based crimes. In addition to structural problems and lack of political will, lack of finances and capacity are additional constraints to provide justice to the victims and survivors of GBV.

While Covid-19 has compelled governments the world over to bring social sector development back on their radars, they are still not sensitised enough to bring GBV on their radars. A gendered approach to cope with both the pandemics will result in reducing the vulnerabilities of women and girls. We should address health and this social pandemic from an approach that meets the needs of women at the forefront, and not addresses them as an after-thought.

In the absence of a gendered approach to deal with Covid-19, increase in GBV may threaten all attempts made towards achieving gender equality.

It may be argued that governments, on their own, cannot deal with the menace of GBV. It is a collective responsibility of all segments of society, especially the self-help groups and civil society organisations. However, for this to happen, one requires institutional and policy space where non-governmental actors may support the government in addressing GBV.

That is why governments must work closely with women rights activists, bilateral development partners pursuing a feminist international assistance policy, and the wider civil society to tackle GBV.

The Covid-19 threat may be addressed by changed social behaviours and a vaccine. However, no costly vaccine is needed to address the threats against women in the form of GBV. All it requires is modified social behaviours and zero tolerance for all kinds of GBV.

The writer is an associate with Policy Outreach & Communication

Department at Sustainable Development Policy Institute.

Email: zahra@sdpi.org

A shadow pandemic