Under the lockdown, women have been confined to their homes. But homes are meant to be safe and secure places. And yet dozens of women have reported to been abused at home. Most of the time it is their husbands but there are others within the household who could also unleash cruelty on them.
Video report by Shafiq Shar from Khairpur, Shaukat Korai from Karachi, Abdul Baseer from Peshawar, and Ahmed Saeed from Lahore.
Text by Xari Jalil
On April 21, a man Sadiq of Ahmadpur Sial, Kabirwala was accused of the murders of his wife and his mother in law. According to details, Sadiq had begun to doubt that both his wife Kiran and mother in law Parveen had illicit relations with men. He visited his in laws’ house one day when his wife was there and killed both Kiran and Parveen.
On April 16, in Dadu’s Shahbaz Colony, Rani Begum Vistro’s face was burned up to 30 percent after some people attacked her. Six people – including a woman – threw a toxic chemical in her face after she refused to marry her daughter to a man they recommended. According to Rani Begum’s statement later, they had also threatened to kill her daughter if she would continue to refuse.
In yet another case in April, a young domestic worker was allegedly murdered by her employers – one of them a doctor – who later told her father that she had died from the Coronavirus and that they should stay away from her body. The police later booked a case against the accused on behest of the girl’s father, who did not believe them, and suspected murder. The case took place in Kharian Cantonment.
Murders – including killings in the name of honour, sexual assaults and rape cases, and even suicides have increased sharply ever since the lockdown began.
Like the rest of the world, in order to contain the Coronavirus, Pakistan too has focused on implementing lockdown measures which have obviously resulted in restrictions on movement and forcing people to remain indoors. But on the sidelines, unnoticed by many, a different kind of ‘pandemic’ has risen: domestic violence.
LOCKED IN WITH THE TORMENTOR
Internationally it was discovered that violence against women (VAW) cases were rising under the lockdown as women were imprisoned at home with abusive spouses – or other male family members – who bullied them verbally, sexually assaulted them, or were physically violent. Obviously this had caused not just physical damage but mental as well. Several mental health experts have already commented on the psychological trauma and the impact of this claustrophobic situation is on the abuse survivor.
Even Pakistan’s Ministry of Human Rights recognized the situation because, on March 30, it posted online about reaching out on their helpline at 1099 or call/text on WhatsApp (03339085709).
On April 25, the Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell (AGHS), issued a press statement that revealed that they were continuously receiving VAWG cases despite the lockdown.
Director Nida Aly says there is just too much violence against women and girls out there and because everyone is confined at home, it is invisible.
“We have around 17 paralegal centers spread all over Lahore and also Kasur,” she informs. “And during this time we have had at least 75 women come to us with complaints of domestic abuse and violence. But this is nothing: it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
Aly says that it could not be assessed how much the figures were exactly because their community centers catered to a few hundred families in specific areas.
“Who is to say what the thousands and thousands of other women who are outside our reach, facing at home?” she asks. “This is not a normal level of violence – even children are reportedly being abused.”
Mamtaz Gohar, national coordinator the Child Rights Movement, an umbrella organization under which all child rights’ organizations fall, confirms this by informing that there have been several complaints regarding child abuse, but this too is an unexplored figure since not every child will have access to a helpline or an adult who can protect. “They too are stuck at home with their tormentors – this includes girls and boys both,” he says.
“It’s all about the economic situation,” adds Nida Aly. She explains women are now equally out of work as are men. The financial situation at home is precarious, and tempers are running high, while cramped social spaces are also affecting the situation.
“Many women, especially those who performed physical labor to earn their livelihood, are now without any means of earning due to restrictions on economic activity,” she adds. “These women were sometimes sole breadwinners, but now they are not bringing in money, or any fringe benefits. Many women claim their financial worries have been exacerbated by the abuse they have suffered – which often comes unprovoked.”
Women are not even left alone even if they have health issues.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and the Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences, 50 percent of women report that violence is either the same, or increases while they are pregnant.
Around 50 percent of women do not respond in any way to the violence that they are facing and continue to suffer silently. Only a few – 0.4 percent, take their cases to court. Meanwhile, in all, at least 90 percent of women in Pakistan have experienced some form of domestic violence, at the hands of their husbands or families. Around 47 percent of married women have experienced sexual abuse, particularly marital or domestic rape. However, all these cases continue to go underreported.
According to reports, in the UK there has been an upsurge of 25 percent in calls and online requests for help during the lockdown.
But no data under lockdown has been collected in Pakistan. But the UN Women has explained that lockdown measures have had a social impact that has affected women severely at the global level.
A policy paper titled ‘Gendered Impact and Implications of Covid-19 in Pakistan’ was jointly released by the Ministry of Human Rights, UN Women Pakistan, and National Commission on the Status of Women (NSCW). The paper pointed out that the pandemic is likely to have an adverse impact on the lives and livelihoods of women and vulnerable groups.
It gives an analysis of the vulnerabilities that women and girls face because of the coronavirus while focusing on six key thematic areas including education, health, labor force participation, time use and mobility, financial empowerment, and gender-based violence (GBV).
The UN Women policy paper highlighted that most women in Pakistan were part of the informal low-wage labor market, therefore, suffering from low-income security and a lack of access to safety nets and social protection during the crisis. The report also suggested medium to long term steps to address the issue including building women’s economic resilience, targeted cash and loan programs as well as access to financial services. But for some people, short term steps are needed.
I am very poor, and my husband does nothing at home all day,” says Ayesha Bibi, a survivor of spousal abuse from Khairpur, Sindh. Ayesha says she is constantly harassed by her husband for money, and when she is unable to give him anything, he violently thrashes her.
“He provides me with nothing – all he does is beat me senseless whenever he is at home,” she laments. “Where do I even get the money he demands of me? I make handicrafts; I have six children. Do I feed my children or give him all my earnings?”
Shahnaz Sheikh, the chairperson of the Ehsas Development Organization which works towards the welfare of women and children, has herself noted a sharp increase in incidents of domestic abuse in the past 4 weeks. She gives an approximate figure of about 50 percent.
“Women are coming to us, saying that their husbands are refusing to give them any money while staying indoors all the time and subjecting them to physical violence and torture,” she says. “The police does not perform its duties – it does not investigate into reports of domestic violence, it does not make any arrests. This may be the reason why such abuse is on the rise.”
Chairperson of the Sindh Commission on the Status of Women, Nuzhat Shireen, stated that fewer cases were being reported due to the lockdown, however, there is an undeniable spike in such incidents.
“Since the day the lockdown was enforced, all women-related services have remained closed in Sindh,” she points out. “Numbers of abused women will only come to the forefront after the lockdown ends.”
Sindh has also been at the forefront of honor killings recently. A least three honor killings were revealed to have happened during the past month, one in Shikarpur and the other in Sukkur, both on the same day.
According to data compiled by the Sindh Suhai Sath Organization an NGO that works on women’s rights in the province, from January 1, 2019, to January 31, 2020, as many as 186 people were reportedly killed in the name of honor. Out of the total, at least 130 were women.
On March 22, three women were killed for honor in a duration of 24 hours, two of them axed to death.
At the same time, women have also been pushed to commit suicide.
Only recently the in case of Maryam from Francisabad, Gujranwala, a young mother of four children killed herself by hanging from her ceiling. Reports from neighbors revealed she often used to be beaten up by her husband.
LAW, LEGISLATION AND THE GOVERNMENT
Pakistan does have legislation in place for domestic abuse.
Sindh enacted its Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2013, Balochistan passed a similar law in 2014 and Punjab passed the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act in 2016.
In KP there is no law as such protecting survivors of domestic abuse, because of the reaction of religious leaders.
Domestic violence has already been defined broadly in each of the laws present in Pakistan that pertain to the issue. It would encompass any kind of violence or abuse, including physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, verbal, and economic. Also, violence can come from a spouse or any other domestic relationship including siblings, or parents, etc.
Meanwhile, Nida Aly says not all the violence is being recognized, especially not verbal or psychological abuse. “Police must be duty-bound to look into the cases of domestic abuse when it comes to them,” she says. “Shelter homes have stopped taking in women, and at the same time women are scared of even using shelter homes, they are scared to complain or get out of their homes.”
Aly says the police is extremely unresponsive – they see habeas corpus in custody cases, or abduction cases, but they don’t react the same way with domestic abuse. “She also pointed out that a huge chunk of the police has also been deployed in lockdown. As for court, there is a proper gender-based violence court now, at the Lahore High Court, established by Justice Mansoor Ali Shah, but not many judges recognize it and do not pass cases on to it.
“Whatever it is,” she says, “We must have recognition of the fact that this violence on women is having an extremely deep impact – one which is going to be difficult to ever reverse.”