Lockdowns resurfaced a bitter realisation of gender inequality, public safety and domestic violence
The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed women’s rights in Pakistan to backslide a generation. Lockdowns resurfaced a bitter realisation of gender inequality, public safety and domestic violence. There is ignorance. There is undervaluation. There is an active effort to subdue their needs.
Women continue to struggle with disparities deeper than previously recognised. Their homes have become the most dangerous places for women. While there has been a division in domestic violence and public safety for long enough, the interconnectedness of the two only recently allowed avenues for intervention to address them simultaneously.
Even as the disparity escalates heartbreakingly, Pakistan’s deep-rooted patriarchal tendencies make sure that the atrocities do not surprise the masses by much. It’s almost as if condemnation has been immunised. As long as women are taught that the only way to be safe is to stay within the confines of their homes, change is almost impossible. Given the prevalence of domestic violence, they are just as defenseless at their homes. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan recorded a 25 per cent increase in reported cases of domestic violence and sexual assault early into lockdown – registering over 3,200 cases.
The coronavirus outbreak has caused pressures on women to compound by way of lay-offs, isolation, and household responsibilities. The necessity of staying at home and avoiding social contact not only raised anxiety related to confinement and mental withdrawal; but also, caused a standstill in education as families started pulling out their school-going girls. According to the Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2020, 5 million school-age children are out of school, and 53 per cent of them are girls. The reasons for more girls than boys being out of school include child marriage and gender discrimination.
Maryam, a university student, speaks of a feeling of apprehension that began in her teenage years, and lasted well into her twenties: the feeling of being trapped. She says she was fortunate enough to have a private space. “You can say that the lockdown has worsened the restrictions women my age in our society are subjected to in their daily lives. It’s hard enough to get the permission to go out in normal circumstances. With the pandemic and the lack of an excuse to go out, it has been hard on me and my friends. Being confined to a limited space affects your mental well-being.”
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan recorded a 25 per cent increase in cases of domestic violence and sexual assault early into lockdown — registering over 3,200 cases.
When women are held within their homes, they have little informed understanding of the risks they are subject to. Additionally, there’s little information for one to decide how safe the outside is for a woman in the first place. Statistics obtained from the Law and Justice Commission of Pakistan, as well as the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, show that it’s almost impossible to define ways to minimise risks. This is due to an absence of detailed, gender-specified information.
The default of women being held back is prevalent, and the habit roots from the most proximal of settings, often by those held in respect and love. It’s not surprising that so many women had to take to the streets in hopes of reversing the detriment.
As Maryam says, the lockdowns bore an irony. In a society that already hampers women in their freedom of movement, a global lockdown only rubbed salt into the wounds. It wasn’t unfamiliar, though. And while there may be exceptions for some, it simply doesn’t hold for what is otherwise a norm in many households. The right to education and the right to not being confined within domestic spheres are hard-won freedoms in Pakistan.
Emaan, a university graduate, interprets an expectation that took shape during the lockdown: “A lot of people have taken to social media to display their productivity during the lockdown - be it from the point of getting in shape, losing weight or investing time into skincare. This propagated the notion that girls should look the best, feel the best, and stay productive even in such uncertain times. I believe this is a bit unfair.”
Maria, another university graduate, reflected, “I think the fact that there’s been covert social pressure on women to “improve” themselves during their “time off” is damaging to their mental health. Why expect productivity when we’re in a global pandemic - that alone should be enough to take a mental toll.”
The pandemic has stripped women of freedoms that were already scarce – forcing them to admit how little they had to settle for. For almost a year now, the entire world has experienced what it means to live a life that is constrained; but with a hope that the normalcy will revive. Now, imagine the life of half a country’s population that has been in perpetual wait, not knowing whether they would ever become part of that normal.
The writer is a student at the National University of Sciences and Technology