After HONY: What help is there for women facing domestic violence in Pakistan?
According to a Reuters statistic, 80% of women in Pakistan face domestic abuse. That’s 4 in every 5 married women! Domestic violence is a morose but pervasive reality of Pakistani society. Reasons for this include cultural misogyny, male entitlement, and misinterpretation of Islam to justify violence against women, among others. There are many myths of domestic violence but the fact of the matter is that it is never justified and needs to be addressed seriously.
Case in point:
This picture of a hapless single mother in Lahore recently shared on the hugely famous Humans of New York page, is making waves on social media.
After going through the ordeal of abuse, and then having the commendable audacity to leave her abuser, the woman evidently has no one to go to- many times even parents with whom they lived before, shut out survivors. There are no independent friends (who live by themselves) to turn to. No rental agency is ready to give a house to an unemployed woman without a male guarantor. There are hardly any shelters for the homeless or victims of domestic abuse. Survivors of abuse literally have nowhere to go. Whether her life will now be one of despair and exploitation on the streets, or she would find some support to make her own and her daughter’s life better, depends on her getting the right help right now.
““I left an abusive relationship and I have nowhere to go. I have Hepatitis C, so no one is willing to take me in. I don’t know how long I will live. I tried to give her up for adoption so that she’d have a good home. The wife of a minister told me about a place where I could drop her off. But when I got there, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.” (1/2)
So what help is actually there? In this post I’ll discuss what options are available to women in Pakistan. Most of this information is drawn from my experience of volunteering for Chayn Pakistan, a crowdsourced information portal that informs women facing abuse.
In cases of domestic violence, not only is a woman’s self-esteem destroyed, but very soon her health deteriorates and too often mental illnesses develop. Depression, anxiety disorder and paranoia take root. It can be paralyzing. From taking away her freedom and imprisoning her in the house, to injuring her and leaving with marks and at times ultimately homicide, the gamut of violence is broad and horrifying in its entirety. Many wives are locked up and then beaten profusely. Many are beaten in front of their own children.
Talking about an abusive relationship is a very daunting task , let alone leaving one. Divorce is a big taboo here, especially when initiated by the woman. A divorced woman is considered a disgrace to her family, is shamed and sometimes totally shunned. The society in general berates these women, assigning them to a very negative trope. Furthermore, laws including child custody law and legal and law enforcement entities, are not friendly to women (http://chaynpakistan.org/law-divorce/). Threats such as harm to the family or disreputing her character (‘she must have run away with her lover’, ‘they didn’t bring her daughter up right’) in case the woman leaves, are enough to deter a woman from leaving. Literacy rates amongst women remain painfully low– though there is some progress from before– so finding employment to become independent is hard. Even those who have a college degree, would find it hard to get a good job that pays enough to be able to rent a flat or house by themselves. A couple of micro-credit programs are available that can be availed by a woman on her own, but again, they are few and far between, and often entail many complications and pre-requisites.
To add insult to injury, women do not have a separate legal personality. By this, I mean, opening a bank account or having a national ID card requires identification verification of father/husband or a male guardian. The only remaining options is to ask permission of husbands and/or fathers, the very people that these women are trying to escape from. This puts her economic independence in jeopardy. Getting a place to live on her own is even harder. There are a only a diminutive number of shelters available. These are inadequate, difficult to keep children in and rather unsafe in general; a victim is still vulnerable there, more so as shelters will confirm the presence of a woman. Religiously-motivated shelters often act like a prison which are bound by a strict moral code so a survivor again faces a household where she has no agency. Why don’t the ones with savings rent out a house themselves? You need a police check and employment to do so, and guess what they need to verify that? You guessed right: someone to vouch for them, preferably a male guardian. On the subject of police, why doesn’t the woman call the police to back her claims of abuse which could help with housing and access to other services? Because the police seldom take these cases seriously. In fact, domestic violence was not even a crime until just a few years ago. Still, it is brushed aside nonchalantly even by entities that are supposed to protect women . Police usually calls up a woman’s parents or husband to ‘set the record straight face to face’ which just leaves women (with no outside support) with no option but to go back to her abusive home to face a greater threat to her life. Often families will report their daughter/wife/sister as missing so the police has authority to capture them under ‘we thought you had been kidnapped’ reason.
Going through all of this is nerve-wracking and if you’re a woman with no means, then there is more bad news for you: there are very few mental health clinics out there, let alone free clinics. Public healthcare as a whole is in a deplorable condition in Pakistan. There are almost no support groups, though some charities are breaking through the barriers to help women through counselling and skills training.
It is no surprise then that most victims of domestic violence decide to stay with their abuser. A few make the brave decision of leaving, normally braving intimidation from abusers and after much second-guessing. Most women don’t even know about the little support and respite for leaving or for coping while staying that is available to them.
Let me leave you with a message of hope…
I’ve been volunteering for Chayn Pakistan (http://chaynpakistan.org/) since it started two years ago. We’re a crowd-sourced information portal for women experiencing domestic abuse. This is only accessible to women who have access to internet, but this proportion of women is growing at an encouraging rate and is almost as likely to face abuse as those living in village huts. That’s the pervasive nature of domestic abuse: it crosses class, ethnic and national boundaries. Our site informs women about a range of issues from how to manage depression and other emotional challenges that result from being in an abusive environment, to how to make your own domestic violence case without a lawyer. The information on Chayn Pakistan website and social media can be used not only by women but also by organizations and charities that help women in these situations. Chayn offers tools to all who can access them so even uneducated women can get help if smaller charities use information from Chayn. We passionately seek to improve the world- one empowered woman at a time! And there are many other excellent charities working on this issue in Pakistan too. If you want to help, dispel the myths around domestic abuse and start volunteering!
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