The shadow pandemic

27 Apr 2020

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The writer is a lawyer.
The writer is a lawyer.

MEASURES to deal with Covid-19, while necessary, are putting millions around the world at increased risk of violence and abuse. ‘Stay-at-home’ directives to contain the spread of the virus are making many women and children even more vulnerable to domestic violence, which the United Nations now refers to as “the shadow pandemic”.

Less than two weeks after the lockdown was imposed in France, reports of domestic violence around the country increased by more than 30 per cent. In the United Kingdom, the rate of domestic violence killings has reportedly doubled since March. In India, the National Commission for Women has recorded a surge in calls to its domestic violence hotline during the lockdown. To mitigate the potentially devastating costs of increasing violence at home, governments must protect vulnerable women and children even as they try to curb the pandemic.

Long before Covid-19, domestic violence was recognised by the World Health Organisation as a “global health problem of epidemic proportions”. A 2013 study by the WHO found that intimate partner violence is the most common type of violence against women, affecting 30pc of women worldwide.

The risk of domestic violence is magnified by conditions that have been imposed to contain Covid-19. Lockdowns and enforced social distancing have trapped women and children in the home with their abusers, drastically limiting their options for support. Women find themselves unable to access help from community or extended family members as they observe ‘stay-at-home’ orders. Economic and psychological pressures caused by the lockdown are likely to increase violence from abusers, while services available to women and children under normal circumstances have been shuttered as governments focus their resources on Covid-19.

Failure to protect against domestic violence during these times reinforces a culture of impunity.

Shelters, where women and children could receive protection from imminent violence, are not accepting additional occupants due to fear of the virus. Courts across the world have limited their operations, making it even more difficult for women to get urgent relief. Helplines for counselling or protection are becoming even less helpful for women as their access to phones and technology is further restricted. The unavailability of services to protect against domestic violence during these times reinforces a culture of impunity for abusers and is likely to give them more confidence ‘while no one is looking’.

There is little doubt that Pakistan — which has always been an extremely dangerous place for women — is experiencing the grave ‘shadow pandemic’ of domestic violence as the numbers of Covid-19 cases rise everyday. Government departments have not shared whether significant increases in domestic violence complaints or incidents have been recorded. It is not clear whether any systematic monitoring is even taking place.

It is apparent, however, from cases coming to NGOs, lawyers, psychologists and women commissions that the current environment is intensifying pressures on those already vulnerable to domestic abuse, enabling abusers to turn the home into a prison for vulnerable family members.

The very skeletal network of protection services available to women in some parts of Pakistan has virtually shut down. Women crisis centres and complaint cells run by the Sindh Women Development Department, for example, are not operational having been deemed ‘non-essential’ services at this time. Shelters across Pakistan have restricted their admissions due to fear of spreading the infection. Courts, being open only for urgent matters, are limited in their ability to provide remedies, while far fewer lawyers and other advocates are available to support victims due to lockdown and social-distancing measures.

While the Ministry of Human Rights designated a helpline (1099) for legal advice for victims of human rights violations during Covid-19, the usefulness of the helpline is questionable. When I called it on two occasions on behalf of clients, I received nothing more than an automated response asking me to record a message, which I did. I was never contacted by anyone in the ministry in response to my message.

We can look to examples of other countries that have taken some innovative steps to support women trapped with their abusers. France and Spain, for example, have designated code words for women to use in pharmacies. On hearing the code word, pharmacists contact the authorities for help. Women who are unable to call for help in their homes, and for whom a pharmacy is the easiest place to access, are using this method to get much-needed support from the police.

Here in Pakistan, the government must also act on its responsibility to protect victims of domestic abuse. In TV and radio messaging about the threat of Covid-19, the government must also warn domestic violence perpetrators and note how victims can access support through functioning helplines. Services to protect women and children from violence should be deemed ‘essential services’ during the lockdown. Police must be sensitised to increased risk of domestic violence. While making arrests and detaining perpetrators could be dangerous due to Covid-19, police should at the very least respond swiftly to complaints, issue warnings and follow up on incidents. Where necessary to prevent imminent violence, police must remove perpetrators from the homes.

Capacities of shelters should be enhanced to accept women, while maintaining isolation of occupants where needed. Courts should also introduce some flexibility in their procedures, especially for providing urgent protection orders to women by, for example, allowing hearings by videoconferencing and exempting a complainant from appearing in person.

Some may argue that now is not the time to expect implementation of measures against domestic violence that barely existed even in better circumstances. On the other hand, at a time when the entire world is gripped by a public health challenge, there is an opportunity to recognise domestic violence for the grave public health crisis that it is and start acting seriously to prevent it.

The writer is a lawyer.

Published in Dawn, April 27th, 2020