In KP's Merged Districts, The Covid Pandemic Led To An Epidemic Of Domestic Violence

In KP's Merged Districts, The Covid Pandemic Led To An Epidemic Of Domestic Violence
Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, particularly the newly merged tribal districts (formerly FATA), have a very high rate of domestic violence in Pakistan. The women in these districts are often being kept deprived of the very basic human rights – like their rights to education, health and freedom of expression.

During the recent Covid-related lockdown, 393 cases of domestic violence have been reported in the Directorate of Human Rights. This points to the need for enshrining protection for women into the law. With the passage of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Domestic Violence against Women (Prevention and Protection) Act, 2021, lawmakers hoped to accomplish this.

KP's domestic violence bill was passed after a delay of several years. It had been tabled in the provincial assembly during the ANP-PPP coalition government in August 2012. JUI-F lawmaker Mufti Kifayatullah at that time raised objections over the bill by asking the speaker to refer it to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII).

Mehwish Muhib Kakakhel, an advocate at the High Court, says that although KP's domestic violence bill has been passed now, in 2021, there are still many amendments which need to be sorted out.

Under the Domestic Violence Act, district protection committees were to be notified but unfortunately nothing has been done till now in this regard. The job of these proposed committees is to facilitate the victims of domestic violence in the context of medical aid, legal aid, assisting them to the police station for lodging their FIRs and registering their complaints before the magistrate.

Kakakhel believes that one of the reasons behind the high rate of domestic violence in merged districts is because such issues are usually not been reported. After the merger process where former FATA was incorporated into KP province, police stations have been established in the Newly Merged Districts (NMDs). Since the current police force is not enough to handle the law-and-order situation, the strength of the force needs to be increased. However, it is also important for the existing force in these areas to be made more gender sensitive – preferably through specialised training.
Advocate Mehwish Muhib Kakakhel explains: “The reason why women don’t report these cases in the merged districts is due to the established norms and culture which forbid them to step outside of their homes - and this also rules out their access to regular police stations

25-year-old Asma, who belongs to one of the merged districts, says that domestic violence has increased after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Women staying at home are facing more violence as compared to working women. Moreover, as the male members of the families usually remain at their homes all the time due to the lockdown-related suspension of their businesses, often they direct their frustration against women at home.

KP Ombudsperson Rukhshanda Naz says that the Internally Displaced People (IDP) women are also victims of a worse form of subjugation at the hands of their males because they considered by them to be subjects of family honour. These women feel compelled to wear the Burqa (a kind of veil that is used by Pashtun women both in Pakistan and Afghanistan and which covers the whole body except eyes) because if any man outside the family member were to see them by chance, it is often the case that these women will have to face a very inhuman kind of beating.

Advocate Mehwish Muhib Kakakhel explains: “The reason why women don’t report these cases in the merged districts is due to the established norms and culture which forbid them to step outside of their homes - and this also rules out their access to regular police stations. Therefore a need arises for model police stations or women’s help desks which would replace the need for women to go to police-stations. In going to police stations, most of the women fear the reaction from society as well as harassment at the hands of police personnel.”

She further adds that awareness is very important in these areas because females don’t know how to report these issues. There is a lack of education even about the recognition of beating as a form of violence. Government Organizations (GOs) and Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) need to play their role raising awareness about the looming social crisis of domestic violence. They need to focus on improving the process of reporting domestic violence to the appropriate institutions rather than celebrating “16 days of activism” in urban areas. Elders, tribal leaders and religious figures can play a major role in implementing these measures:
“Similarly, the women of the merged districts are not allowed to go outside of their houses, which is also a very big hurdle in reporting these cases. There is a need to change the mindset of people, for which training and awareness campaigns are mandatory. The maulvis or religious leaders can play a big role, as most of the people obey them,” she says.

37-year-old Saima is a housewife from Landi Kotal. She says that she was 19 years old at the time of her marriage, while her husband was 18 years old at that time. Everyone was telling her husband that since his wife is one year older, he should control her.
“He would use to beat me every day, even sometimes twice or thrice a day to subjugate me and to make sure that he will be dominant in this relationship. I never spoke in loud voice to him because I was thinking that he would feel inferior due to my age factor,” she recalls.

She also says that when she told her mother about this physical torture inflicted by her husband and even showed her the marks, she didn’t pay any heed to it and instead told her: “Be patient, I believe you will change him and make him a good guy. You have married him now and, you should have a commitment to live and die in his house.”

When Saima is asked whether she will opt for registering a complaint against her husband, she says that if she were to file a report of this violence, she would face social disapproval - and that would further worsen her situation.

Female lawmakers have also proposed an amendment on the bill regarding the word ‘women.’ They say that under current wording of the laws, only the woman has been declared a victim, but children and other household members should also be included in the scope of the bill. These lawmakers point out that the word “aggrieved person” is used for victims of domestic violence in the Sindh Domestic Violence Act 2013, which means any woman, child or other vulnerable person being subjected to any act of domestic violence is provided legal protection.

Statistics on the issue are troubling. More than 80% of women in the merged districts of KP did not seek any help or tell anyone about domestic violence against themselves. The percentage of women who have experienced violence is highest in the merged districts, standing at 66%.

Most clerics believe that male dominance brings a kind of ‘balance’ in society. And so, for instance, a local cleric termed the efforts to outlaw domestic violence as being propaganda from a few liberal feminists. He said that they are provoking women to “betray the Islamic society.” He is of the view that such laws are “polluting our society.” Furthermore, he says, “History is testimony to the fact that a good home and a good society is one where the male is dominant and respected.” He insists that domestic violence is a familial matter rather than one for society to address, and that nobody ought to “interfere.”

Sanna Ejaz, who is chairperson of the Waak Movement (Pashtun Women’s Movement), says that domestic violence is everywhere but the ratio is different. Women often ignore violence and keep silent, thus accepting it as their fate. She says that there is a need to discourage violence and promote women’s rights through positive changes in the educational curriculum.

Zohra, hailing from another merged district, has a more traditional view. She says that domestic violence “always happens due to a women’s own fault.” This points to the widely prevalent view that a young girl has to be trained to endure violence with patience and not to complain. Experts say that these attitudes only serve to normalise ever more terrifying forms of domestic violence.

According to a survey conducted in the merged districts by the United Nations (UN) in 2019-20, the percentage of women who justify this beating at the hands of a husband under “special circumstances” is 95% in the newly merged districts – which itself is an alarming piece of data for all those trying to combat domestic violence here.

Jamaima Afridi is a Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan-based freelance journalist, working on women's rights/issues, Afghan refugees, climate change and religious freedom. She reports on human rights in conflict-affected regions.