Women under the roof during lockdown in Pakistan

COVID-19 has exhausted and devastated the Pakistani population, which was already on the hinge of an economic crisis. This catastrophic pandemic has tilted in a worse direction for women, who bear the brunt of not only the deadly virus but also domestic and emotional violence at the hands of family members. 

The lockdown that was imposed to control the spread of the virus, and the entire nature of the pandemic is affecting everyone, but is evidently a gendered experience which is harsh towards the women and gender minorities financially, psychologically and physically. 

According to Dawn, more than 44 healthcare workers including 70 nurses tested positive with eight surrendering to death, due to the novel coronavirus in May alone. Women are also facing a drop in seeking medical help for their sexual and reproductive appointments which would have been regularly scheduled without the lockdown but are now getting used to a new kind of normal, whereby their sexual and reproductive health is compromised.

Economic Impact of Lockdown on Women

The economic impact on Pakistan has been disastrous to say the least, but it has compounded the financial well-being for working women who make up the major chunk of the informal economy in Pakistan. The structural inequalities stacked against the favor are highlighted during this pandemic; women are not adequately trained to access technology and the internet which has been a hotbed for businesses during mobility restrictions due to the lockdown. The digital divide is a gaping hole for the working women of Pakistan. 

Around 85 percent of women are less likely to be paid in hard cash or not get paid at all, according to the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey, financial worries have multiplied adversely for women who were earning informally. The financial stress trickles down drastically to matriarchal households which account for 13% households in the country. Policymakers have not come up with any special financial assistance schemes particularly for the women who are affected economically in these times and might lack the resources or the mobility needed to leave children and/or the elderly at home to seek support or cash from the Ehsaas Program. A social welfare program initiated by the government aiming to alleviate poverty and provide economic relief to the underprivileged, conveniently blurring the line between various gender inequalities existing in Pakistan.

Domestic abuse during lockdown

Domestic abuse has also been increasing rampantly, but the situation seems far bleaker in Pakistan where the policies are ambiguous and the shelters are filling up with little to no resources available for the affected women. Pakistan ranks 151 out of 153 on the Global Gender Gap Index and it is reflected in the abuse inflicted on women, especially during the COVID-19 induced lockdown. Zulfiqar Hameed, the capital city police officer Lahore, reported that domestic violence has increased by 25 percent just in Lahore. Another ombudsperson from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) mentioned the rise of more than 500 cases reported alone by mid-May. Many cases go unreported and there is a drastic difference between the rural-urban divide existing in Pakistan, whereby many rural women lack the awareness regarding access to helplines and reporting abuse.

While there are a few helplines catering to report mental health problems and abuse initiated by the Human rights commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Interactive Research and Development (IRD) as well as United Nation Population Fund (UNFPA) in collaboration with Rozan (NGO). Most of the calls pertain to inquiries regarding food rations, financial assistance and COVID-19 testing facilities, as told by Zill-e-Huma, a Public Relations Officer at the Ministry of Human Rights. Domestic violence has taken a toll on women across classes and equalized the danger towards a woman’s well being regardless of their socioeconomic background. 

Natasha, a student at a private university in Karachi is forced to live with her abusive father and brothers in these times. The father threatens to hit her and the future seems bleak, compounded by the economic stress as a graduating student as well. While during normal days, university would be a welcome escape from this violence, during the current lockdown she’s forced to share the roof with him despite the constant abuse directed at her. Further to this, financial dependency has added to the already severe toll. 

The same has been true for Shazia, a domestic worker living in the outskirts of Karachi who comes to the urban center for livelihood. Her husband has been projecting his anger and stress onto her, hurling abuses and threatening to kick her out of the house. Financial stress and comorbid anxieties are affecting the entire familial household and women are at the center of facing it and balancing the tenuous situation between budgeting and ensuring harmony at home. 

The government and policy makers of Pakistan need to be acutely aware of the severity of the situation and then, analyse and provide support accordingly. Whilst the helplines may provide some sort of psychosocial support, they only direct the affected women to legal aid, financial help or shelter homes which are inadequately staffed. Not only this, most of the victims are living with their abusers and may not have access to safe spaces where they can communicate effectively with the facilitator on the phone. The constant threat and fear of the abuser is internalized and alternatives need to be planned and strategized so this integral issue can be tackled effectively. The government has no set program or assistance in place which may take the process further or help them systematically in the society with work or other kinds of support. 

Nighat Dad, a prominent social rights activist in Pakistan also critiqued how the government needs to include other marginalised communities in their ambit and vastly increase awareness in the rural areas, which lack the vocabulary to call out abuse and report it. 

In such circumstances, women often tend to prioritise social harmony and familial well-being before their own and tend to suffer in silence, more so at the hands of their close relations. Digital Rights Foundation also mentioned that complaints regarding cyber bullying harassment have increased by 189 percent with the majority being women facing non-consensual advances and blackmailing online. This staggering information was included in their report titled ‘COVID-19 and Cyber Harassment’ which also highlighted suggestions for policymakers such as developing a rapid response cell and a sophisticated digital forensics and investigation team to ramp up the process and effectively deal with cyber harassment in Pakistan. 

Inclusion of trans communities and other gender minorities is imperative to engage with the victims of abuse in Pakistan. They are highly marginalised in the patriarchal society of Pakistan and there isn’t even sufficient data to begin with and the state needs to start working to be more inclusive in their approach towards abuse and neglect. The trans community is greatly deprived of their usual income opportunities in this lockdown and should be provided with special support to overcome these structural inequalities, to begin with.

“Women’s vulnerability increases with lockdown as they often have to live with abusers and may find it difficult to even call for help,” Shireen Mazari, the Minister for Human Rights stated in the policy brief titled ‘Gendered Impact and Implications of COVID-19 in Pakistan’.

Subsequently, gender sensitivity needs to be held paramount by the government to understand, address and empower the women who stand at the forefront of the catastrophe that is COVID-19 currently disrupting the lives of people worldwide. The state needs to spread maximum awareness about domestic violence on a grand level and highlight the consequences for this crime, with absolutely no room for impunity. 

In addition, society needs to empower women collectively and trust the victim by default, further taking them into safe spaces. Hence, they can act as societal watch guards and immediately report abuse when they experience, hear or see it around them; functioning as whisper networks where the affected women are taken to shelter houses, or taken to secret locations for safety.

The United Nations has provided an extensive report focused on gender based violence in Pakistan, targeting policymakers with potential and time tested solutions and responses to be prioritised during this pandemic. The government and policy makers collectively need to be more inclusive and initiate specialised, consistent response plans and packages for all the marginalised communities. 

Citizens and healthcare providers also need to be more sensitive towards the people around them; it’s a communal issue and needs to be treated as such. In a country where pre-COVID-19 around 90% women went through some sort of abuse, the numbers have exponentially risen during this lockdown, according to United Nation’s policy brief on ‘Gender and Pandemic’. Community members, friends, family as well as the local shopkeeper need to be on alert and guard to protect the vulnerable around us, to the best of our capabilities.

The right approach to combat COVID-19 and its comorbidities is gender sensitive in nature, an inclusive one which will trickle down from the state and the respective policy makers, who need to act quick and responsibly for the other half of Pakistan, which is not a cis-gendered, heterosexual male.

Sana is a graduate of social sciences who majored in History from IBA Karachi, and interned at Media Matters for Democracy in 2020.

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