Toxic households amidst a global pandemic

July 19, 2020

Op-ed writer: Rameen Shakil recently completed her Bachelor’s in Social Development and Policy from Habib University. She is the official blog writer at Primary Skincare and is also currently working as a full-time content writer. She hopes to become a clinical psychologist in the future. 

Pakistan has fallen victim to COVID-19 since 26th February 2020, when a student in Karachi University tested positive after returning from Iran. From February till July, the Sustainable Social Development Organisation (SSDO) reports that there has been a staggering increase of 200% in violence mainly against women and children.

A compilation of the national and provincial data broke the numbers down into 8 basic categories: early child marriage, child abuse, child labor, domestic abuse, kidnapping, rape, violence against women (VAW), and murder. 90% of these crimes were committed against women and children. This problem is not just confined to Pakistan. In fact, a spike in domestic violence around the globe has caused the World Health Organization to urge “governments to put women’s safety first” during the pandemic.

Policymakers need to realise that while lockdowns are necessary to curtail the spread of Coronavirus, the home is not a safe space for all. The virus has caused essential services such as helplines, shelter homes, medical facilities, and the police to become redundant. Countries like France have designed unique code words to be used at pharmacies by domestic abuse victims who are forced to quarantine with their abuser(s). This has triggered immediate intervention by the police, helping hundreds of women escape their toxic households. However, no such intervention has been seen by the Pakistani authorities.

One might have thought that the structural power imbalance within Pakistan could not get any worse, but the lockdown has further curtailed the mobility of VAW survivors, making it increasingly difficult for them to seek help. A sharp decline in economic activity has caused women to be forced out of their jobs and once again dependent on their abusers for survival. This has made them even more vulnerable to violence. The slightest disagreement over domestic matters, finances, or children could cause all hell to break loose. Furthermore, men who have been dismissed from the workforce are more likely to release their frustrations and aggression by physically, mentally, or emotionally abusing their partner and offspring.

Alongside women, children stuck in toxic households have become victims of child abuse. There is no denying that children are more vulnerable than adults to experience heightened emotional distress in the face of adversity or when their routines are disrupted. Being susceptible targets, children face the brunt of adult anger. Violence at home towards women causes a negative effect on children who are known to be good observers. Their mental health can be significantly affected, leading to trauma, anxiety disorders, and depression as they grow older.

With numbers rising each day, the future seems bleak. There seems to be no end in sight concerning the pandemic. Most children and young adults have been stuck within the confines of their toxic households for 24-hours-a-day since early March. This means that in cases where a parent or guardian tests positive for the virus, children are sent away to homes of relatives or acquaintances. We are already aware that most of the time, perpetrators of sexual abuse are acquaintances of the children. This puts them at risk of rape and sexual violence with no one to seek help from in the absence of their primary caretakers.

That being said, children are also at high-risk for mistreatment and abuse within their households. Child welfare organizations around the world, such as UNICEF, have sent out an alert, warning countries about a rise in child maltreatment. This includes sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. In Pakistan, it is not uncommon for parents to be the prime perpetrators of rape or physical abuse. Let’s not forget Maryam, the 13-year-old girl living in Korangi Town who was repeatedly beaten up and raped by her stepfather, and his brother. Maryam’s mother knew what her little girl was going through, but could not stand up for her. Whenever she confronted her husband, he threatened to divorce her and kill all her children.

While Pakistan has never been a safe space for women and children, it is time for the government to devise robust legislative frameworks, policies, and programs that protect vulnerable children and women stuck in toxic households. A multi-faceted, holistic approach needs to be adopted on both the national and provincial level if we wish to rid our society of this menace.

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