Home isn't a safe space for victims of domestic violence

The lockdown due to Covid-19 has isolated many women at home with their abusive partners.
31 Mar, 2020

“Because of household chores, I am required to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. But the kitchen is also where I feel most unsafe, because I am scared that if he comes while I am cooking and gets upset, there is a range of sharp items on display in front of him."

Over the last week, I have received a number of messages on Twitter from women in different parts of Pakistan, because the lockdown due to Covid-19 has isolated them at home with their abusive partners.

For many, the places where they often sought refuge on a daily basis are no longer accessible; whether that be their workplace, their maternal home, or at a restaurant with friends.

This is an unexpected consequence of the pandemic, but a trend that we have started to see grow exponentially in different parts of the world. It was only a matter of time until we saw this spike in Pakistan, but we may be far less prepared to handle it.

A lack of support services, both personal and institutional, coupled with cultural norms means we could very well find ourselves in the midst of increased domestic violence rates very soon.

A novel situation manipulated by abusers

“Three days ago, I had to go out and get groceries for the house. When I returned, my husband forced me to wash my face with bleach to make sure I didn’t bring the coronavirus home with me.”

From honour killings to acid attacks, Pakistan already has a very high rate of domestic abuse.

With no accurate data, the most-cited estimate ranges between 70 to 90 percent of Pakistani women experiencing some form of physical, emotional or psychological abuse— mostly from an intimate partner.

Read: 7 ways to cope with living in an abusive home (and how to leave)

Acts of physical violence in marital relationships are almost always accompanied by psychological abuse, and in thirty to fifty percent of cases, it is also accompanied by sexual abuse. Such abuse is typically part of an on-going pattern of patriarchal control, rather than an isolated act of physical aggression.

Pakistan ranks as the sixth most dangerous country in the world for women— *Stock photo*
Pakistan ranks as the sixth most dangerous country in the world for women— Stock photo

Self-quarantine and social distancing, while imposed by the government, in an attempt to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, may, in turn, be manipulated by abusers who use this as a means to further their controlling behaviours, primarily affecting women.

Abusers may force women to partake in dangerous acts, justifying it as ‘protection,’ and isolate them from their friends, families and supportive social networks.

Heightened anxieties caused by day-to-day uncertainty

“He keeps telling me that I have the coronavirus and I am going to give it to my children, even though I have no symptoms and I have not left the house in many days. He is isolating both my kids from me, and telling them that I am sick, and that I didn’t care enough about their wellbeing enough to protect them from it. I am starting to think that maybe this is true, why else would he do this?”

Being made to forcibly stay at home due to Covid-19 means that abusers may find themselves losing a sense of power and control, which is typically the backbone of abuse.

Explore: What are your options if you're a victim of domestic abuse in Pakistan?

The financial, domestic and health-based pressures that have accompanies the required lockdown can compound abusive households. This may impact the way their partners and children are treated within the home.

A form of psychological manipulation, known as gaslighting, is a common practice of abuse used to regain a sense of control in relationships. It is commonly used to plant seeds of self-doubt in an attempt to make the victim question their own realities.

During a pandemic, given the heightened anxieties caused by day-to-day uncertainty, the invisibility of the virus and its contagion nature, it can be easily employed and used as a tool for regaining such control.

The anxieties related to Covid-19 may also cause women to make the difficult choice of choosing the threat of abuse over the possible sanctuary of their maternal home, because, for them, the risk of their elderly parents getting the virus takes priority over their own safety.

Collateral damage to social isolation

“I am too scared to go to my parent’s house, because they are old and at risk of contracting the virus. It is better for me to stay here with my husband than to risk my parents getting coronavirus because of me.”

For those women with children, there is the added stress of protecting their kids from witnessing instances of abuse behind closed doors, or keeping their children from becoming victims themselves during this period of social isolation.

In intimate relationships, abusers may also threaten to harm the children if their partner counters abuse with retaliation, or respond in an ‘unfavourable’ manner.

Systems of support under lockdown

“Usually, when I could sense that his mood was getting worse, I would send my children to my sister’s house so that they wouldn’t be home to see him turn into a monster. But with all the limitations on our movement, I can’t do that anymore and I am so scared they will see him in that state.”

The pandemic has amplified existing barriers to getting support in abusive relationships.

Those who may require medical aid for physical abuse may find themselves hiding from hospitals, out of fear of contracting the virus and for many, leaving the house for any reason is no longer an option.

There has been a rise in psychiatric and mental health-related telemedicine, and counselling and therapy sessions have been moved online. While efforts are commendable, this is also a cause for concern in Pakistan, where the majority of the mental health field remains unregulated.

Courts are closed and legal aid has not yet been digitalized in Pakistan, which means women are not able to access immediate remedies such as protection orders either.

Domestic abuse, and particularly spousal violence, in many ways, still remains outside the ambit of institutional intervention due to societal norms and traditional stances continuing to see it as a ‘personal issue.’

Related: ‘Every second woman suffers domestic violence in Pakistan’

Our culture looks at women who stoically suffer from abuse as favourable, while those who report marital abuse or take legal measures to free themselves of it, are seen as dishonourable.

Women being trapped within the ‘chaar dewaari’ with an abusive partner is going to cause detrimental effects on our society, with repercussions that will last far beyond the end of the Covid-19 pandemic.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

Daanika Kamal specializes in human rights law, and is Founder of The Colour Blue, a mental health organization based in Pakistan. She tweets at @daanistan.