Fighting Two Pandemics At Once!

Fatima Iqbal, MBBS Candidate, Liaquat National Medical College

There is no denying that violence occurs during a pandemic, but the types of violence vary depending on the context of the disease. For instance, a spike in violence against Western healthcare workers in Western Africa occurred during the Ebola epidemic. The Democratic Republic of the Congo had 386 attacks on health personnel and health infrastructure in 2018, resulting in seven deaths and 77 injuries. A large number of riots took place in Sierra Leone and vehicles were stoned. Ebola outbreaks in Western Africa also fueled domestic violence. Due to school closures caused by the Ebola outbreak from 2014-2016, over 5 million children in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia were unable to attend school, which led to an increase in child labor, sexual abuse and teenage pregnancies across in these countries.

With the government preoccupied with preventing the spread of disease, there has been little importance given to social issues like domestic violence. The term “domestic violence” can refer to multiple forms of abuse- physical, psychological, emotional, sexual, and financial, occurring in intimate or dependent relationships .

When measures like self-quarantine or lockdowns are imposed during a pandemic, homes are looked at as a safe place for people to resort to their daily activities. What many fail to realize is that not everyone goes back to a “happy home”. In a world where a large number of people sit in the comfort of their home, children and women from dysfunctional families have no safe place to escape from such situations and fall prey to violence due to extended shared time between the victims and their offenders.

Speaking for my country Pakistan, it is one of the countries in the region without a well-established national reporting system where women can lodge complaints about domestic violence. The issue has been addressed in various ways in the past. For example, in 2018, in one of the provinces of Pakistan, Punjab, an app called Women Safety was released. But according to reports, the helplines are non-functional and do not report complaints. In a similar way, one could discuss the helpline 1099 introduced by the Ministry of Human Rights during COVID-19. Although it was created to provide free legal aid to women, it has largely become ineffective.

There is an Independent National Commission for Women in Pakistan, but it is largely silent and has not taken any concrete measures during the lockdown. There have been no announcements, reporting options, helplines, or statements made by the commission on its website. In the same way, the National Action Plan for Preparedness and Response to COVID-19 has also been silent on the issue of domestic violence, highlighting that the Pakistani authorities have a lack of awareness and concern regarding the severity of this problem in the country. With poor social security and inadequate support systems, Government and Non-Governmental Organizations fail at preventing such instances. 

Not only does domestic violence put an individual at risk of facing physical injuries, it also makes them go through mental trauma. Women with a history of abuse are at an increased risk of substance abuse, alcoholism and suicide attempts. Anxiety, depression, fear of intimacy, trust issues, anti-social behavior and symptoms of PTSD have also been reported. On the other hand, children who are raised in such an environment are more likely to adopt one of two paths – a path of recovery, or of adopting the same behavior that they grew up seeing and repeating the cycle of abuse.

The Government needs to take strict measures against such a heinous crime. Hotlines should be developed that take immediate steps to help women who reach out to them. There should be shelters and other essential housing options available for women and children to seek refuge from their abuser. Women should be offered access to free legal services to rescue themselves and their children from abusive households. Mass education should be provided to the general population to educate them about their basic rights. Women should be empowered through equal job opportunities and gender equality should be practiced at the workplace. In order to break the cycle of abuse there should be therapists hired in educational institutes who instill knowledge about how domestic violence can be detrimental to an individual and how to break free from it.