INITIALLY, as many parts of the world went into lockdown, most crime rates fell, while rates of domestic violence (DV) soared, as victims were forced to quarantine with their abusers. Domestic or intimate partner violence can take a number of forms including psychological, financial, physical and/or sexual abuse. The social isolation and economic stress of having to work from home, home school their children, loss of income, etc, have exacerbated the crisis.
In Europe, within the first two weeks of lockdown, many countries reported exponential rises in the number of calls being made to DV helplines. A Spanish women’s rights organisation termed these reported cases as “just the tip of the iceberg”. The same trend has appeared across the world. Mexico registered an 80pc surge in emergency calls. By April’s end, Mexico’s national network of shelters reported that 241 women had been killed due to gender-based violence (GBV).
The number of women seeking emergency shelter has also skyrocketed during the pandemic. However, owing to the risk of infection, many countries have suspended admission in shelters. Meanwhile, the UN Population Fund warns that lockdowns measures lasting six months could result in an additional 31 million cases of GBV.
The issue is about awareness and access.
In Pakistan, non-reporting, scant media coverage and an apathetic criminal justice system makes it appear as though DV is almost non-existent.
Though helplines at the provincial and federal levels are operational, the issue is about awareness and access. Most rural victims are not aware of what GBV means or how to report it, and hence the majority accept DV as a part of life. In March 2020, the Ministry of Human Rights helpline received only 13 GBV-related calls. There is also a lack of connectivity between the many helpline services operating across the country, many of them with long, difficult-to-recall numbers. Besides, bans on public transport make it much harder for women to leave abusive homes.
By merely introducing helplines, a state cannot be absolved of its constitutional obligation to uphold women’s right to life. Have we empowered women with knowledge of their rights? Is this possible if we do not promote girls’ education?
Moreover, DV prevention requires a collaborative communication strategy linked with the administrative and criminal justice apparatus. For GBV victims in semi-tribal societies, family and tribe are considered the only options for refuge, but in cases where ‘honour’ is a higher priority than human life, the only safe option is a shelter.
In our society, however, both state-run (Darul Amans) and NGO-run shelters administered are confronted with a trust deficit. Making shelters a safe option requires increased state ownership, financing and community partnership. Initially, Darul Amans were established in eight divisional headquarters in Punjab, but increased need resulted in their extension to all 36 districts. In Balochistan only two and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa six Darul Amans are functional, though the situation warrants extension of such facilities at least at the divisional level. Moreover, at present, none of the women’s shelters are equipped to deal with the Covid-19 crisis, lacking in isolation and testing facilities as well as basic hygiene and protective equipment. The main issue, however, remains the under-reporting and non-availability of shelters in rural areas.
Without reliable data on DV, no state can respond appropriately, and therefore more transparency in reporting should be encouraged. In 2018, 15,277 women and children took refuge in 36 shelters in Punjab, ie each shelter protected over 400 people. Between 2016-17, 994 women sought refuge in six shelters in KP, ie each shelter protected over 150 women.
To address the trust deficit, Darul Amans should be placed under independent public oversight, with formal linkages with dispute resolution councils, social welfare departments and the criminal justice system. The post-9/11 trend of international donor investment in women’s development is likely to wane with diminished strategic interest in the region. However, increasing state ownership and community engagement can actually counter the propaganda that shelters are an extension and by-product of ‘Western values’. Adopting women’s rights as an indigenous issue and adapting interventions to local needs is the only viable option.
Increasing the number of beneficiaries of protective services requires increased awareness of women’s rights, which possible without the active support of opinion leaders and law enforcement officers. Article 9 of the Constitution guarantees the right to life, Article 25(A) the right to education and Article 38 highlights promotion of socioeconomic well-being of the people. It is only by converting these obligations into actions that women’s miseries may be reduced.
The writer is the author of Swara: Women as Property.
Published in Dawn, July 18th, 2020