An unseen pandemic is festering in Pakistan
As Pakistan enters the fourth month of the lockdown with rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, increasing fatalities, and mounting financial pressure, another “shadow pandemic” continues to fester, unseen and unheard, within the confines of several homes in Pakistan. Such homes have become horrific and dangerous places for women and girls who, in the course of this continuing lockdown, have found themselves increasingly vulnerable to physical, sexual and emotional violence.
According to the Sustainable Social Development Organization, there has been a 200 percent increase in the cases of violence against women in Pakistan during the period of the lockdown. The Punjab Safe Cities Authority has also reported a substantially higher number of complaints of domestic violence on its emergency helpline during the last three months. Many other non-government organizations have also witnessed an increase in the number of such complaints.
Exact figures regarding incidences of domestic violence during the pandemic (or even otherwise) are, however, difficult to determine. It is estimated that 90 percent of women in Pakistan experience some form of domestic violence from their husbands or families (UNODC, 2020). A majority of them suffer in silence, seeking no form of redress or protection. Financial dependence, lack of alternative support systems and social taboos discourage reporting of such cases. Only a negligible percentage turn for help to the judicial system. In other words, the complaints of domestic violence coming to the fore in this time of the pandemic only constitutes the tip of the iceberg.
The government should commit resources to ensure the continuity of and access to emergency helplines that can connect victims of domestic violence to essential services. The capacity of state-run shelters should be enhanced to accommodate more victims, while SOPs should be adopted to ensure the health and safety of residents.
Sahar Zareen Bandial
The fear, frustration, anxieties and pressures which the pandemic has stirred, have found vent through acts of violence perpetrated on the bodies of women who, amidst directives of lockdown, social distancing, and isolation, have found it increasingly difficult to escape and protect themselves against abuse.
Several countries across the world have reported a rise in cases of violence against women in the recent past. The National Commission for Women in India has registered a 250 percent increase in domestic violence complaints since the lockdown. France, Spain, the United Kingdom, Brazil and the United States have also reported a rise in domestic violence to varying degrees. Historically, an increase in domestic abuse cases has been reported in times of emergencies, natural disasters, wars, economic crises and disease outbreaks.
The UN has called on all countries to incorporate a gendered perspective in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet in Pakistan our discussion on the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic has left unconsidered the impact of the lockdown on the lives of the innumerable women and girls who are now unsafe in their own homes. The National Action Plan for Preparedness & Response to Coronavirus is wholly silent on this front.
The Ministry of Human Rights has established a helpline to facilitate the reporting of domestic violence and abuse. The helpline, however, is reportedly not fully functional, and redirects callers to a recorded message, with no follow-up (Malkani, 2020).
It has also been reported that existing state-owned women shelters in Punjab are beyond capacity, and in this current climate are particularly unprepared to take in new residents. The district administration has converted the Women and Juvenile Facilitation Centre in Gujrat, which operated as a temporary shelter, into a quarantine facility. The Violence against Women Centre established in Multan under the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act, 2016, is also practically non-functional, while the Act has still not been notified in other parts of Punjab.
Legislation dealing with domestic violence remains largely unimplemented in other provinces as well.
Domestic violence has not been a state priority. But it is time to recognize the pervasiveness of this ‘shadow pandemic’ and undertake measures to protect women from abuse.
The government should commit resources to ensure the continuity of and access to emergency helplines that can connect victims of domestic violence to essential services. The capacity of state-run shelters should be enhanced to accommodate more victims, while SOPs should be adopted to ensure the health and safety of residents. Neighborhood watch committees must be instituted at every union council level to facilitate the detection of cases of domestic violence.
Though judicial work has now been restricted to urgent and certain criminal matters, it is imperative that courts continue to hear complaints of domestic violence, possibly through virtual hearings as done so in other jurisdictions, and provide protection where required.
The police generally have a very dismissive attitude toward complaints of domestic violence, treating it as an “internal matter” that ought to be settled privately. The police must be sensitized about the issue and encouraged to take action on complaints pertaining to domestic violence.
The government must also engage in an awareness campaign on all media to inform victims of avenues of redress and protection, while also publicly reaffirming its commitment to take action against perpetrators. Finally, domestic violence legislation must be effectively enforced, and in some areas amended, in order to reign in the menace of domestic violence.
- Sahar Zareen Bandial is an Advocate of the High Courts and a member of the Adjunct Faculty at the Shaikh Ahmad Hassan School of Law, LUMs. She has a keen interest in gender issues and has worked extensively in the area of legislative drafting.