Women in the Frontlines at Home
**This entry is in partnership with Women in Law, South Africa (WOZA) and Women in Law Initiative, Pakistan.
Amidst the coronavirus conundrum of staying at home and self-isolation, women in Pakistan are facing intersectional struggles that define the ambit of their domestic lives. Struggles cut across social status and class, different financial, educational, racial and legal backgrounds. Covid-19 has highlighted struggles of women who are either the sole breadwinners, those who belong to abusive families, or those who were earning an insignificant amount as daily wagers and have now been fired from work till the pandemic ends, and they find employment again. As larger parts of Pakistan are on a lockdown, women from poor socio-economic backgrounds are the ones most affected. They have not only lost their livelihoods without compensation or a future to go back to, but also the chance to escape their slums and houses for a few hours every day. Additionally, as mentioned in a number of news reports such as those reported by Dawn and Express Tribune, domestic violence is now on the rise after the lockdown because men who earlier used to go out have to stay home while families deal with the socio-economic pressures stemming out of the prevalent pandemic situation.
Women are subjected to horrific abuse, both physical and mental, in the sacred space called home. However, class struggles hit women most when they belong to a deprived and economically disadvantaged household. While most women are working to financially help their husbands earn a livelihood, they are almost always the sole caretaker at home. From cooking to cleaning, these primary responsibilities are shouldered by women and considered as obligations on the mother. In poor households where women do not have domestic help to depend on and they have to solely handle all domestic responsibilities such as household chores, including but not limited to taking care of the children, and the elderly and anyone who falls sick during this time, women are expected to function in an unbalanced and distressed manner since the pandemic took over.
While affluent women are also subject to domestic violence, class prevents them from falling prey to other responsibilities such as those taken over by domestic help, maids and cooks, hence unburdening wealthy and socio-economically advantaged women. Where women are fortunate enough to have outlets to escape from, money to rely upon, education to feed on, supportive social circle and financially stable kin, an abusive partner is easier to get away from. The question here is where does the Pakistani law intervene and equally treat women with similar abuse but different socio-economic backgrounds? Although the answer may be in the continued implementation of statutes such as the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act, 2013, however, with court proceedings in most cases (except urgent ones and bail cases etc.) have been halted for now, the relief is yet to be sought. While women await injunctions and decisions pending in courts against men who have abused them and for instance, who have filed for restitution of conjugal rights as a counter-claim for a suit for dissolution of marriage (khula) filed by a victimized woman; women are substantially disadvantaged in the pursuit of justice unless a legal decision by a court of law refrains and restrains a man from infringing on his wife’s rights.
Besides access to services such as the Sindh police ‘madadgar’ helpline to report complains of cases of domestic violence, the government must urgently put in place remedies for women who are structurally disadvantaged with the rise of the pandemic due to societal attitudes of attributing primary caregiving responsibilities to women. As a result of psychological and physical pressures on them, women are likely to get frustrated and feel hopeless. It is only when their partners help out at home, appreciate them and recognize their efforts, will these domestic and familial situations get better. These unforeseen circumstances are what highlights the intersectional implications of the coronavirus on women and the law. Appreciating doctors, nurses and others fighting on frontlines is important, but we cannot neglect the efforts of women who are wives, mothers, daughters and sisters as they manage and feed whole households amidst this panic and chaos.
* Sara Raza is final year law student at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and a member of the Women in Law Initiative Pakistan.