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Unsafe at home – Domestic Violence during the Pandemic

Tue, 08, 20

A surge is evident in domestic violence during the pandemic. Experts suggest how this can be countered.

Stuck in your house for months, with minimal or no outside interaction with other humans except via phone or online. The only people you are spending more time with than ever before is your family. Sounds familiar? For some, it may even sound comforting, as home is where one feels safest. But women who are stuck at home with an abusive family member or partner during the pandemic are not safe at home either.

When it comes to the issues humanity is facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the loudest voices and most glaring headlines are centered on the public health crisis, crumbling economies, and job loss. What is often ignored, and not fully understood, are the implications of this crisis on vulnerable communities; one of these is women, and one of the problems women are facing more than ever during the pandemic is gender-based violence, in their homes or outside.

Pakistan saw its first two confirmed cases of COVID-19 on 26th February, 2020. In a video message in the month of April, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had warned the world of a ‘horrifying global surge’ in domestic violence during the coronavirus pandemic, saying that “We know lockdowns and quarantines are essential to suppressing Covid-19. But they can trap women with abusive partners.”

As stated in a policy brief by the Ministry for Human Rights, Government of Pakistan, titled “Gendered Impact and Implications of COVID-19 in Pakistan,” evidence suggests that epidemics and stresses involved in coping with the epidemics may increase the risk of domestic abuse and other forms of gender-based violence (GBV). Studies have also found that unemployment tends to increase the risk of depression, aggression and episodes of violent behavior in men. “Hence, the country may experience a rise in cases of domestic abuse as a result of COVID-19. Given the current climate of decreased economic activities, financial uncertainties and a situation of lockdown being faced in Pakistan, heightened tensions could translate into women facing more vulnerabilities,” states the brief.

Why is it happening?

The fears have come true. “There is an increasing global evidence that rates of GBV have increased under lockdown,” says Ayesha Khan, author of ‘The Women’s Movement in Pakistan: Activism, Islam and Democracy’, adding that women stuck at home with abusers who are getting increasingly frustrated by the impact of the pandemic, both economically and psychologically, have nowhere to go.

The psychological factors seem to be the main reason in this rise. “Men as primary earners in many families are feeling the financial pressure and stress more. For many, social distancing has also meant a drastic change in routine because of limited work and socialising, which causes a build-up of stress. For some, the stress is related to constant fear of exposure to COVID-19 because of work or because men tend to do a lot of outdoor work. Sometimes stress manifests as physical symptoms,” says Clinical Psychologist Dr Asha Bedar who has worked in disaster situations, including the COVID-19 crisis. She shares that she has more men presenting issues such as chest pains, breathing trouble and issues sleeping. Men also tend to externalise a lot of their stress through irritability and aggression which can spill into violence at times. The brunt of this pent up stress is faced by the females in the family, mostly the wife.

As Dr Bedar explains, women during the lockdown have had to disproportionately bear a triple burden of work: increased household work with everyone at home, increased and constant caretaking responsibilities (including coronavirus patients), and home schooling of children (including learning and managing new technology). Working women face an additional juggling responsibilities. “Both physical fatigue and mental stress are being reported more. Constant interaction and demands often mean more conflict at home, and can contribute to more depressive symptoms and anxiety. Many women report being left with no time for themselves. Channels for stress relief through breaks, socialising, and other away-from-home activities like office work, shopping, visiting family, socialising with neighbours, friends, or attending classes etc., have also become limited, increasing their levels of stress and anxiety. Irritability, anger, anxiety and depressive symptoms are all emerging more,” she says. This constant friction between stressed spouses means they have less emotional threshold and patience, especially the men. The result is an increase in domestic violence.

According to a UNODC report titled ‘Gender and Pandemic – URGENT CALL FOR ACTION’ advocacy brief, 90% of women in Pakistan have experienced some form of domestic violence, at the hands of their husbands or families. 47% of married women have experienced sexual abuse, particularly domestic rape. Most common forms of abuse, according to the report, are Shouting or yelling (76%), Slapping (52%), Threatening (49%), Pushing (47%), Punching (40%), and Kicking (40%).

“Most Pakistanis have been hit hard socially and economically by the pandemic, but the impact has been different on women and children who have been historically marginalised and prone to be victims of aggression. Covid-19 and its consequences have placed the already vulnerable women in a graver situation due to the triggers for abuse induced by the stress and financial problems coupled with confinement in the home caused by lockdowns,” says Fauzia Viqar, Chief Executive of Rah Centre for Management and Development, a rights advocacy organisation. She confirms that domestic violence has increased and is being reported in larger numbers across the world, including Pakistan. According to her, the recent numbers shared by the helpline of Ministry of Human Rights prove a rise in domestic violence since the lockdowns in Pakistan.

When asked about the reasons leading to this surge, Dr Tabinda Sarosh, Pathfinder’s country director in Pakistan, says that it is due to “lack of mobility and isolation at home, widespread unidentified and unrecognised mental issues combined with pre-existing high incidence of VAWG (violence against women and girls). Global data shows that incidence of DV and VAWG always rises in crises situations and often goes unreported.”

The broader description of violence, according to Dr Shama Dossa, a community development practitioner, researcher and academic, includes psychological violence and deprivation. “The impact of job loss and lack of mobility is more on women. Women are more burdened with household work during the pandemic. The lesser educated the perpetrator, the more the violence,” she says.

According to a UNODC report titled ‘Gender and Pandemic – URGENT CALL FOR ACTION’ advocacy brief, 90% of women in Pakistan have experienced some form of domestic violence, at the hands of their husbands or families. 47% of married women have experienced sexual abuse, particularly domestic rape.

The reporting of DV in Pakistan is not easy because of multiple factors, and women are scared to report due to social taboo. According to the aforementioned UNODC report, only 0.4% of women take their cases to courts. 50% of women who experience domestic violence do not respond in any way and suffer silently. Usually domestic violence is underreported; women stay in abusive and violent marriages till the stage comes when divorce becomes inevitable.

“Generally, help-seeking behaviour is missing. Anecdotally, police officers say that they succeed in convincing the woman to make up and go back home to the husband without registering an FIR,” says Dr Dossa, adding that the reporting process should be set up in a way that women feel more comfortable to report. A big consideration is that if a woman leaves her house after suffering from DV, where is she to go? “In the province of Sindh, there are some functional safe houses at the district level where complainant can stay for a few days.”

Working towards a solution

Experts feel that while the situation is difficult, the way forward for mitigating domestic violence, particularly in the pandemic, requires multi-pronged approaches.

“Domestic violence can be addressed at different levels, such as raising awareness among women and young people, and providing info on coping and safety, as well as setting up and disseminating info on professional crisis helplines with trained counsellors and lawyers. Also to be included in the strategy should be developing SOPs for the police for handling DV especially during COVID-19, setting up safe (including COVID-19 safe) spaces for women and children, strong support from the Government on a no-tolerance approach for violence, creating awareness on anger and stress management for men, and legal awareness,” suggests Dr Bedar.

The support needed is not just logistic and legal, but also emotional, and all these aspects need consideration. Ayesha Khan shares that in Pakistan, civil society groups have helped to set up new helplines to support women needing help from abusive partners, and cites examples. “Rozan has set up a dedicated national helpline under COVID-19 which gives psycho-social support. ShirkatGah is helping the Sindh Commission on the Status of Women prepare a gender response to Covid-19 pandemic, in which GBV and DV are key areas of concern.”

Dr Dossa is of the opinion that the answer lies in a multi-sectoral collaboration which is needed to counter the menace of DV and GBV, which means that the police, the social welfare department, the women’s development department, the population planning department, all work in consortium. As the main systems provider is the Government, this is what is needed.

The aforementioned policy brief informs us that Pakistan’s Federal Ministry of Human Rights has taken an affirmative step through issuing a COVID-19 Alert that provides a helpline 1099 and a WhatsApp number 0333 908 5709 to report cases of domestic violence during the lockdown.

Dr Sarosh feels that healthcare providers like Lady Health Workers (LHWs) or Lady Health Visitors (LHVs) can also be part of the solution “Under ‘NayaQadam’, for the first time in Pakistan, healthcare providers trained on Family Planning are now being trained on GBV services to become first point contacts for the survivors. This would allow women to seek survivor-centred services in full confidential and private settings, receive basic aid, and high-quality referrals to shelter homes, security services, legal recourses, and of course health responses.” NayaQadam is a project led by Pathfinder International with five partners aimed at high-quality FP programming. While this is a feasible solution, the safety of female healthcare providers is also a matter of concern, more so during the pandemic – safety against any kind of violence and exposure to the coronavirus is something that would need to be looked at carefully when they are out in the field or working from makeshift clinics in their homes.

Women have been excluded from most decision making forums on COVID-19, as well as response and relief related groups. According to Fauzia Viqar, National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) and other high level platforms are cases in point. Absence of the female voice in decision-making for meeting the challenges posed by the pandemic marginalises issues of women, including increase in their care giving role, DV and issues of access to information among others. She adds that COVID-induced restrictions on OPDs and transportation have increased women’s challenges, especially of reproductive health, which is already low in priority. “We need to ensure there is no disruption in services to victims of domestic violence such as helplines, shelters and OPDs,” concludes Viqar.

The writer is a freelance journalist with a focus on human rights, education, health, and literature. She also works as a Communications Practitioner and Media Trainer.

https://www.thenews.com.pk/magazine/you/700989-unsafe-at-home

Campaigns against gender-based violence

Published: December 8, 2019
PHOTO: FILE

PHOTO: FILE

KARACHI: “Sindh has a number of very good laws pertaining to gender-based violence and rights of women, but implementation has always remained weak,” said Legal Aid Society associate director Maliha Zia Lari, talking to The Express Tribune after moderating a panel discussion at the “Provincial Consultation on Implementing Laws on Rape, Sodomy and Sexual Abuse.”

As activists the world over push ahead with the annual international campaign “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence” that kicked off on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and ends on December 10, Human Rights Day, concerned individuals and organizations are sitting down to discuss what can be done to make life safer for Pakistan’s vulnerable populations, particularly women and children.

Fight against gender-based violence stressed

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Sindh office organized the discussion in Karachi as part of a series of campaign events. Aiming to initiate discussions around understanding the changes and procedural amendments in laws relating to rape, sexual abuse and sodomy, UNFPA’s representatives reiterated their commitment to the elimination of all forms of gender-based violence. This year’s theme for 16 Days of Activism, “Orange the World: Generation Equality Stands against Rape!” resonates with this commitment.

Focusing on the role of government departments and institutions in the implementation of laws relating to the subject, experts such as police surgeon Dr Qarar Abbasi, Sindh Muslim Law College principal Justice (retired) Ali Aslam Jafri, DIG Investigation Javed Riaz, Sindh women development department secretary Alia Shahid and Sindh Commission on the Status of Women chairperson Nuzhat Shirin discussed how implementation could be made possible and how laws could be further refined.

Courts for gender violence cases to start on Nov 4

Between 2006 and 2017, there have been several amendments to the law relating to rape and sexual abuse. According to UNFPA representatives, these amendments have created a legal framework with differing definitions and punishments for rape based on sex, with life imprisonment or death for aggravated circumstances. Yet there is little awareness of the changes amongst the people and the key actors in the criminal justice system. For effective implementation of the law, each actor such as the police, medico-legal officers and the judiciary need to reform their operations.

Farhat Parveen, the executive director of National Organization for Working Communities proposed that women should be hired in larger numbers to deal with sexual violence cases and should be provided with all the basic necessities to carry out their work. Pitching suggestions for improvements in the implementation of the law, she advocated for the inclusion of transgender issues in the body of law and exemplary punishments to eradicate sexual violence, adding that out of court settlements should not be allowed for offences such as rape.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 8th, 2019.

https://tribune.com.pk/story/2113665/1-unfpa-campaigns-gender-based-violence/

“I was raped hundreds of times, by the man I was married to”

Published: September 10, 2014

It has taken her years to even be able to talk about this. For the longest time, she was exisiting in a zombie-like state of mind. PHOTO: REUTERS

That phase of her life ended three years ago with her divorce, but 35-year-old Naila* will never be healed of what she went through during the nine years of her marriage. This is a true story; the true story of a woman who suffered a plight faced by so many women. Sadly, the crime committed against them is not even considered a crime.

“Every time my husband approached me, it was sheer torture. Sometimes physical, and forever mental and emotional torture. He was physically brutal and wanted me to indulge in behaviour I was not okay with. He never cared about what I wanted or needed. He did not care about whether I was unwell or pregnant or had recently given birth to a child,” says Naila.

It has taken her years to even be able to talk about this. For the longest time, she was existing in a zombie-like state of mind.

While laws to punish perpetrators of rape have seen considerable headway in Pakistan, how does one even begin to talk about an act that is not even seen as something despicable, leave alone a crime? Talking to even educated people makes one realise that most Pakistanis, even women, do not recognise it as something that should even be discussed openly.

Naila tried to talk to her family about her plight many a times,

“They thought something was wrong with me. ‘You have to fulfil his needs. He has a right over you. Besides, your three sons will suffer. Think of them’, is what they’d say every time. So many times, I wanted to say ‘but what about my rights?’ but did not have the courage. When something is packaged in social norms and misunderstood religious ethics, one is conditioned into staying silent even in the face of pain and suffering.”

When asked if Pakistani law recognises marital rape as a crime, Maliha Zia Lari, lawyer and women’s rights activist, explains that earlier the law described rape as a crime committed by a man against a woman other than his wife. Lari says:

“In 2007, the part that said ‘other than his wife’ was removed. That technically means that the statute has changed. However to the best of my knowledge no cases have been reported”.

In her opinion, it all boils down to social bias, stress on women in particular when it comes to conjugal rights, and the fact that marital rape is not even seen as a crime,

“There is so much silence around the issue”.

Naila’s saviours came in the form of some friends who made her realise that religion neither condoned nor allowed a man to be physically cruel to his wife, even when it came to spousal physical rights.

“I began to study and talk about it with people who had knowledge, and realised I was being wronged. I realised that just like I am not allowed to cause harm to others, it is also a sin to allow someone else to harm me. Allowing a man to physically hurt you and treat you like an object with no feelings is not piety,” she says.

The change took long. The process took even longer. The first person who needed to understand that this was wrong was Naila herself. The most difficult part was making the decision, because her husband was not a habitual wife-beater, yet was often violent when it came to the area of physical intimacy. But Naila finally struggled her way out.

According to barrister Asker Husain who practices law in the UK, those from the civil society or human rights’ camps should not be disheartened if social change is not swift.

“In England, marital rape wasn’t recognised as an offence until 1991, and it took a very long time and much effort to change centuries’ old thinking that somehow the act of marriage was tantamount to the woman ‘consenting’ to everything,” says Husain, adding that even in the UK, that there aren’t many marital rape prosecutions.

“There are a number of reasons for this. Sometimes it’s simply because the wife doesn’t want to bring a case against the man she loves and/or is the father of her children, or reasons like economic dependency. It’s also very difficult for the prosecution to establish the absence of consent. But evidential issues are faced in other arenas too and are not unique to marital rape.”

Seeing stories like Naila, one is forced to wonder whether what Bertrand Russell wrote in 1929 in his book ‘Marriage and Morals’ still holds true. Russell had said that,

“Marriage is for women the commonest mode of livelihood, and the total amount of undesired sex endured by women is probably greater in marriage than in prostitution.”

Whether one gives the act the tag name of ‘marital rape’, or chooses to call it by a milder name to avoid severe reactions from certain quarters, the fact remains that use of force and violence, and lack of consideration of the wife’s feelings is something unacceptable, both religiously and ethically.

Change takes time. For change, all segments of society must be slowly brought on board, including the men. For this, baby steps would have to be taken. And the first step is to break the silence around the issue.

Change may take decades, but the process must start.

*Name and certain details have been changed to protect this person’s identity

Of three Thari women, revenge and a cell phone

Published: September 12, 2013

“This is a story of revenge. It was revenge which disgraced one woman after another,” reveals a saddened Ali Akbar, Executive Director, AWARE. PHOTO: FILE

KARACHI: Pictures of a Thari woman lying on the desert sand, her face in obvious agony, surface for anyone who has recently searched the internet with the keywords ‘Tharparkar gang rape’. But the pictures tell an incomplete story, as do the headlines. This story is of not one but three women. Behind the crimes are a cell phone and men using women for revenge.

M*, a mother of two, who was allegedly raped by eight in Pabrayion near the Chacharo taluka in Tharparkar district. The alleged crime becomes uglier as it happened with M’s husband and children looking on, helpless. M and her family were commuting to Umerkot. This is when five men intercepted them, took them to another location, and eight men allegedly raped her for five hours.

Speculation is focused more on whether the rape actually happened or not, but the motive has been ignored. “This is a story of revenge. It was revenge which disgraced one woman after another,” reveals a saddened Ali Akbar, Executive Director, Association for Water Applied Education & Renewable Energy (AWARE).

People of Tharparkar are shaken up, Akbar said, by this incident, as generally despite poverty, Tharparkar is known to be peaceful with non-existent crime rates.

According to Akbar, the backdrop of this story was set four months back, when a man named Kaloo entered the home of Khano with a bad intention. “The family woke up and the intruder was identified. Footsteps do not go untraced on Thari sand. But the matter was hushed up in the village panchayat,” narrates Akbar.

But villagers kept teasing Khano, alluding that it was the lure of his wife that had brought Kaloo to his house. Thus the first woman in the story is wife of Khano, who suffered humiliation and got sucked into this whirlpool-like situation for no fault of her own.

Enraged inwardly, Khano thought the best way of taking revenge was to dishonour a woman from the intruder’s family, who is the second woman who was shamed and sucked into this game of revenge being played by men. “He raped a close female relative of Kaloo and recorded an objectionable video of the girl on his cell phone with the help of his accomplices. Somehow that video found its way into the village. Her family then started thinking of revenge upon revenge,” says Akbar.

They got that opportunity on September 4 when they allegedly gang raped a helpless woman for the felony M’s husband’s brother, Khano, had committed.

“Thari woman are tough. They can survive starvation and live without even the most of basic of needs but they cannot bear indignity,” says Akbar.

Writer and activist Amar Sindhu, who was part of the protest the victim and her family staged, confirms that she has heard the same sequence of events from concurrent accounts of locals she met. Sindhu, who represents the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) and is currently a member of the Sindh Human Rights Commission, Government of Pakistan, believes that M is telling the truth.

“I have met the victim. Not just her condition was terrible but also her husband’s. Testimonies of locals and the victim point in the direction that the allegation is true. I personally believe that M was, indeed, raped,” says Sindhu.

“M offered to show me her bruises and marks when I met her at the protest but that was a not a feasible setting. Also, in a gang rape, there is less resistance as many control a single woman. Therefore, physical marks are always lesser,” said Sindhu.

According to locals, M, her husband and children kept frequenting the police station of Chachro for three days and on the fourth day they staged a protest in front of the Chachro press club.

Pakistan Peoples Party’s minorities representative of the area, Mahesh Malani, said he had no way of confirming or denying the incidents. Malani, when contacted by The Express Tribune,was aware that two women were allegedly raped, but did not know about the night-time intrusion in the third woman’s house, which is where apparently the whole saga started. Locals feel that Malani has not played his role to support the wronged and make sure the perpetrators are punished.

“Suspects of the second case have been arrested. Lab tests are underway. There is no FIR of the first case. The suspects confess to intimidating and rough-handling the victims but are saying they never raped her,” said Malani, adding that he condemns the act in the strongest sense.

“But just taking notice and condemnation is not enough. On our advice, M and her husband have met the session judge,” said Sindhu. She also said that the while the media has played a positive part in drawing attention to the issue, care should be exercised not to vulgarize the issue. “Now the victims have to be helped to follow the legal process to punish the criminals.” *Name has been changed to protect the victim’s identity.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 12th, 2013.

In Pakistan, education is no shield against Violence Against Women

By Farahnaz Zahidi
Published: November 25, 2012

Educated, urban women also prone to domestic abuse; legislation continues to be stalled.

KARACHI: “I‘m 29, married and have a son, but whenever I look back, I remember my father as a man with rage in his eyes and a shoe in his hand, hitting my mother mercilessly,” recalls *Ahmer Ali.

“She clung to his leg, pleading that he let go, promising that she’ll never ask again why he was late from work,” Ali adds.

Ali’s father stopped hitting his wife, an educated, urban Pakistani woman, once Ali and his siblings grew up.  But the effects of the violence linger on in the family.

Ali confesses to having anxiety and self-esteem issues and has hit his wife twice in their three years of married life.

This is not an anomaly. According to psychologists, children who witness their mothers being hit are more prone to behavioral problems and are likely to repeat the cycle of violence with their own spouses.

Endemic violence

Ali’s story resonates with thousands of women in Pakistan who continue to face violence and abuse, as the world celebrates the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25.

A report titled ‘Violence against Women (VAW) in Pakistan — a qualitative review of statistics 2011’ by the Aurat Foundation says, “Treating domestic violence as a private affair has given protection to perpetrators and has led to the victimisation of women.”

Women find themselves beaten and then threatened of divorce and more violence. The report revealed that a total of 8,539 cases of violence against women were reported in Pakistan in 2011.

Urban phenomenon

It’s not just uneducated women who suffer at the hands of violent spouses. A silent but large number of educated Pakistani women also go through this trauma.

“In some ways, the educated and rich woman is more of a coward. She has more to lose,” says Najma Khan, 42, who got a divorce four years ago and is now re-married.

“When I was thinking of leaving my husband, a foreign-educated man who’d hit me every few months without reason, my friends would tell me I would miss out on the social respect that marriage is giving to me. But I came to a point where it was no longer about social respect. It was about self-respect,” Khan adds.

Therapist Anees Fatima Hakeem at PNS Shifa, Karachi concurs.

“Any abuse is a form of punishment. It’s all about power and control. Even educated women get trapped in this is because the men are not abusive all the time. They can be very good providers and charming. Often, the woman blames herself. A common tactic for the guy is to behave like it never even happened, or tell her she was the reason it happened,” Hakeem says.

Domestic violence, however, not only affects a woman’s psychological health but also gives rise to long-term stress-related health issues like arthritis, hyper-tension and cardiovascular diseases.

“[My husband] feared it would become a police case, so he never let me see a doctor after I was beaten. I would feel abdominal tenderness and bleed from my mouth for days. I’m afraid my body has suffered long-term consequences,” adds Khan.

Violence against women takes many forms, including domestic violence, sexual abuse, human trafficking and traditional practices like female genital mutilation, dowry-related violence and honour killings.

The Aurat Foundation reported 1,988 murders or honour killings of women in 2009.

Investigations by the Ansar Burney Trust also shows cases of women seeking divorce or separation who were subject to mutilation, such as having their noses, ears and hair cut off by angry husbands.

Legislating against violence

Policy makers are aware of the numbers but policymaking is slow.

The lower house of parliament passed the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill in 2009 but it failed to make it past the upper house.

The bill was retabled in the Senate in February, 2012, but was met with a deadlock yet again.

After the passage of the 18th Amendment though, the issue has come under provincial jurisdiction.

Maliha Zia, a lawyer who is an expert on gender and law, says, “The Domestic Violence Bill in Sindh has moved from the Home Department and is with the law ministry. It’s been approved by the chief Minister for tabling in the Sindh Assembly. However, it’s waiting to be tabled.”

“Pakistan must prioritise prevention of violence against women not just on paper but in actual implementation, and pass a law on domestic violence with punishments for those who commit violence against women. It must focus on implementation of existing law and not allow perpetrators to get away. There must a policy of no tolerance of violence against women,” Zia adds.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 25th, 2012.

http://tribune.com.pk/story/470882/international-day-for-elimination-of-violence-in-pakistan-education-is-no-shield-against-female-violence/