The Hydra-headed Monster of Domestic Violence
In ‘Red Sugar, No More’, the author Sijdah Hussain advises: “Open your mouth and let the spiders out!” Talking to others and speaking one’s heart out is, indeed, an effective means to resolving the differences, creating awareness, clearing misunderstandings, opening up new avenues, destroying taboos, debunking myths and seeking help. This is the way to be courageous enough to call a spade a spade and listen compassionately to others. This is the right way to make your voice heard by the powers that be. This is the key to unshackling the truth by breaking silence and creating an environment conducive to dialogue. This helps in setting the priorities right, and identifying issues of considerable importance. In fine, raising your voice helps the society to identify the problems and work thereupon to solve those.
In spite of all the above-mentioned facts, it is unfortunate that most of us still hesitate about talking on issues of critical importance and those that are eating up our society from within. Take, for instance, the issue of violence against women that is still an issue hardly talked about in our society. Sweeping this issue under the carpet has resulted in a situation where most of our women are meted out inhumane treatment, and are made to face cavalier attitudes. The situation is especially precarious because no voice is being raised from the pulpit and there is a deafening silence on the mainstream media in this regard as almost all TV channels are busy in covering political theater where all political parties, which hardly show any concern on the issues of common people, are wrestling to get into power. Even more disturbing is that our education system is also too wayward to educate our people on respecting women and the rights they have under the Constitution of Pakistan as well as Islam. Women are subjected to domestic violence with impunity but no one raises voice. They are harassed at schools, colleges and universities, as well as at workplaces, but nobody dares to challenge this bruteness.
And, above all, what makes this problem grave as well as perennial is that the victims prefer to not air their grievances as they remain silent and tight-lipped. This prevailing trend is evidenced by figures reported in Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 2017-18 (PDHS) according to which 56% of women aged between 15 and 49 years have experienced some type of physical or sexual violence, but they neither seek any help or do they talk with anyone about resisting or stopping the violence. It is due to this silence that 28% of women age 15-49 have experienced physical violence since age 15. By region, the percentage of women who have experienced physical violence is highest in FATA (56%), followed by Balochistan (48%) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (43%). Women in Sindh are least likely to have experienced physical violence (14.6%).
Violence against women, in fact, mirrors the denial of basic human rights of women and girls, which is not peculiar to a specific society or a country but rather is prevalent all across the globe. May it be the developed countries or the developing or underdeveloped ones, this vice is omnipresent as violence against women—physical, psychological, sexual, economic or emotional—is found everywhere, in one form or another. From girls to adult women, almost every female being has to face this menace the profound impact of which is discernible in every domain of life ranging from social to economic. It is in this context that the United Nations observes International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women 2020 on November 25 with the objective of creating awareness on the hazardous impacts of this evil on societies and find out ways and means to eradicate it. The day also marks the beginning of the campaign “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.”
Any kind of violence against women not only adversely impacts their physical and psychological health, but also hampers their ability to take part in social activities. Moreover, the harmful effects of torture continue to affect the next generations as well, because its negative effects take a heavy toll on the psyche and the rearing up of children and their mental health as well. Violence against women keeps harming families and communities for generations. It also augments other types of violence prevailing in a society.
So, eliminating all types of violence against women needs to be prioritized as moral and human rights standards warrant an end to them. Moreover, this violence is not without economic costs which do have bearing on efforts made in the realms of poverty-alleviation and socio-economic development. But, unfortunately, these huge costs are not talked about. The UN says that the direct costs in this connection are those incurred on women’s medical treatment, financial assistance to their kids and the money spent on bringing the perpetrators of violence to book whereas the indirect ones result mainly from loss of employment, cutting off from the productive activities and other human pains and sufferings. This is further explicated by a report titled as “Economic and Social Costs of Violence Against Women Pakistan,” published by Social Policy and Development Centre (SPDC), NUI Galway, Ipsos Mori, and International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW). This report says that direct costs due to VAWG in last 12 months stood at PKR.2,272,764,000 (or US$18,939,000). It further says that in Pakistan, the loss in income for women who experience Violence against women and girls (VAWG) due to missed days of work comes to an estimated US$146m annually. Moreover, the report suggests that another dimension of lost productivity is the impact on care work. Due to violence, women in this study reported being unable to engage in care work for the equivalent of about 11 million days in a year. Similarly, children are also deeply affected by violence against their mothers; this results in days missed from school, which implies reduced capabilities in the long-term. Due to IPV, children missed nearly 2.5 million days in a year. There is no denying the fact that VAWG adds to financial woes of such families and the survivors may lose their positions in society and their work may be compromised, causing further financial pressures that impact individual, family and societal wellbeing. In economic terms, these costs add up to a significant loss to households and society.
Traditionally, ours has been a patriarchal society due to which we carve out different excuses to mitigate the severity of violence against women and children. Gender-based violence in Pakistan in, unfortunately, still considered a domestic issue and, hence reporting this crime to a public or private entity is usually discouraged because it is taken as a blot on the honour of the family and, hence, more violence on the victim. It is due to this reason that only 1.3% of the victims report it to police, 1.1% contact a social welfare organization and only 0.5% consult a lawyer. These figures exhibit the low reporting ratio of domestic violence cases in Pakistan.
The source of the data collected on this issue is the newspaper reports. During the past few years, most newspapers have been overwhelmed with news about precarious law and order situation, political instability, elections, natural calamities, Covid-19 pandemic, international situation, Indian aggression on Line of Control and other such events.
Adding fuel to this fire is the job insecurity being faced by journalists. In this wake, it is not difficult to understand the quality as well as the authenticity of news reports related to VAWG. It is also true that most cases go unreported in the media. Another source of data collection is the police record which, even though not easily accessible, is neither authentic nor reliable. The public image of police, behaviour of police officials with a common man and insensitivity on their part, as well as unfriendly environment of police stations deter women from reporting such cases. If these heinous acts are not reported, then how the help of the law could be sought to overcome this knotty problem?
Experts suggest that the only panacea for all these ills is increasing the participation of women in law and justice system of Pakistan. It is a universally acknowledged fact that the presence of female staff in police is directly related to the reporting and effective investigation of cases of physical and sexual violence; unfortunately, we have been deficient in this regard—take for instance, the police department in Punjab, the most populous province of Pakistan, had only 2.7% of its staff comprising women. Likewise, the presence of women in the justice system encourages victims of domestic violence to take the perpetrators to court, and leading to improved success ratio in such cases. In this regard, a report titled as “Punjab Gender Parity Report 2018”—published by the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women—states that, in 2017, only 15% of the judges working in the province consisted of women and they made only 11% of the total number of lawyers registered with the Punjab Bar Council in the same year. The sensitivities related to proceedings of rape cases in courts obligate that only female lawyers should be allowed to plead in such cases in order to protect the dignity and honour of the victims as they shy away from narrating the details of the incidents before male lawyers. It is also more important because a big reason behind an abysmally low conviction rate in such cases is that the female victims have to undergo consistent pain and ordeal as they have to repeat again and again the horrendous and deeply scarring cruelty they had faced. Moreover, their reluctance in appearing before the court opens the doors to out-of-court settlement of such cases.
It is also a sad reality that most cases of violence against women go unreported and the cries of the victims fail to pierce through the impregnable four walls of the home. Women, too, are reluctant in narrating their ordeal to others. The number of reported cases, though far less than the actual, suggests that the incidents of domestic violence are still on the rise. Figures collected by Islamabad-based Sustainable Social Development Organization (SSDO) from three Urdu and English-language dailies each reports that between the first two quarters of the outgoing year, i.e. 2020, a surge of 244% in cases of violence against women was witnessed—the number rose from 440 to 1515. A perusal of the record obtained by the SSDO from police department under the ‘Right to Information’ law finds that a total of 13,362 cases were registered during the first half of 2020. Moreover, cases of harassing women and girls are also rising.
This state of affairs raises a query that whether the instances of violence have increased or does it depict improvement in reporting of such cases. We put this question before Mr Shehraz Ahmad, Program Officer at the Karachi-based organization “War Against Rape,” who answered it this way:
“It is due to an increase in the number of instances of violence against women, and not because of such cases being reported more. If we talk particularly about cases of domestic or sexual violence, especially against children, we see that the elders of the family prefer to bottle up those, hence such instances are not reported. Moreover, the ratio of reporting is far less in rural areas than in urban ones.”
It is worth mentioning here that although Pakistan has enacted many women-specific laws for their protection against such ills, yet the incidents of violence are increasing manifolds which is against the spirit of such pieces of legislation. Shehraz says, “The principal reason behind this fiasco is a sheer lack of effective implementation of such laws. Moreover, the actual inflicting of the harsh punishments has not been ensured. There is also a pressing need for the capacity building of all the pillars of the edifice of justice system in Pakistan to ensure that laws are implemented in letter and spirit, and perpetrators are meted out the severest of punishments they deserve as this is the only way to curb this cancerous menace.” While throwing light of the ratio of success in cases of sexual violence, he revealed that it was abysmally low at three percent.
Identifying the factors that deter victim women or their families from seeking justice, Shehraz said, “The first such factor is a biased and disparaging attitude of police officials. When a woman goes to a police station, men in the office of the duty officer ask her uncalled for and unwarranted questions just to make her face a secondary victimization. When she goes to the medico-legal section, there is hardly any lady doctor available and she has to be called up to do the job due to which the victim, who is already under distress and trauma, has to unduly wait for long hours which further adds to her mental agony. And, finally when she appears before the court, the proceedings there move at snail’s pace. And to top it all off, most prosecutors are males and the depressed woman cannot explain them the details of the incident in a congenial manner. In addition, there is also a societal pressure as, in our society, victim is herself blamed for the ordeal she was made to go through. This results in the fact that most women and their families do not engage themselves with the criminal justice system of the country.”
(… to be continued)
The writer can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org