The COVID-19 pandemic has colluded with the patriarchy to bring back and amplify a dehumanising era of daily discrimination against women.
Senator Sherry Rehman said this at the Women of the World Festival 2021 on Friday organised by the British Council Pakistan. She spoke at length about how the pandemic gave birth to and has increased both domestic and economic crises for women and reversed some of the fundamental gains that they won after great struggle.
“Patriarchy has burdened women with care, stripped them of income and rights and hidden the scars of violence they face at home,” she said, adding that the impact of crises such as climate change and pandemic are never gender neutral.
'The big statistic of shame'
“Now women have to battle the male aggressor inside and the virus outside the home,” Sherry Rehman said, by quoting the UN. “The pandemic has forced women to stay at home with aggressive men.”
Roughly 28% of women aged between 15 and 49 and 7% of pregnant women faced domestic violence, not to mention the 6% who were sexually assaulted. Before the pandemic erupted, 90% of women had already experienced some sort of trauma or abuse. Lockdowns resulted in a disproportionate increase in women’s responsibilities, including:
- Home schooling of children (adapting to virtual learning)
- Increased household work
- Increased caretaking responsibilities, including those of COVID-19 patients because a majority of them was not admitted to hospitals
Aurat Foundation reported 2,297 domestic violence cases from 25 districts. “It’s just the tip of the iceberg, because the mask of fear prevented women from reporting these cases.” At the peak of the pandemic in July, domestic violence was at its highest.
Erosion of women’s economic autonomy
“The pandemic has naturally had a huge negative impact on the economic autonomy of women,” said Senator Rehman. They were unable to go to their factories, providers, middlemen, dealers or market their products. “Whatever agency women might have acquired through their income disappeared.” According to the World Bank, women-owned enterprises in Pakistan are 8% more likely to lose their entire revenue during the lockdowns.
Women in Pakistan account for only 24% of the formal employment sector. “It’s a huge case of underreporting,” she remarked, adding that women are not mainstreamed as formal economic workers despite working in both rural and urban areas.
Over 12 million home-based workers earn about Rs3,000 to Rs4,000 a month, and have faced high economic vulnerability during the pandemic. Loss of jobs in households has adversely affected their nutrition as social hierarchies prioritise men as the first recipients of nutrition or healthcare.
“Women are discouraged from seeking their place at the meal tables,” said Senator Rehman. “When food is laid out in both rural and urban areas, women are the last to be fed.”
‘No say in health decisions’
According to the UN, 48.1% of women have no say in their health decisions. “We see that women experience both miscarriages and other healthcare problems because of violence,” she said. Pre- and post-natal services were discontinued because the community health workers couldn’t navigate their rounds and were naturally reluctant to make visits. This cut off great protective personal care for women. Maternity wards across Pakistan were turned into isolation wards for COVID-19 patients.
A great number of pregnant women were under stress and didn’t receive contraceptives. “Next year, 5.5 million births are expected in Pakistan due to a disruption in contraceptive prevalence,” Sherry Rehman said. The lockdown made women immobile and reduced their access to lady health workers. They were also at the highest risk of contracting the virus since they were providing healthcare services on the frontline as well.
‘Majority girls may not return to school’
Over 11 million girls may leave school by the end of the pandemic and evidence from previous crises suggests they may not return. In Pakistan, 300,000 schools have been closed since March (reopening gradually).
“Girls lack the internet,” added Senator Rehman. “They would not be the first priority to use the internet device in the household and hence fall behind on their homework.”
The Mobile Gender Gap report shows Pakistan has the highest mobile internet gap, with 37% males having access to mobile phones against 19% women.
‘Climate change affects women most’
Sherry Rehman said women suffer the most due to adverse effects, resulting from climate change. In Pakistan, 70% of the population displaced by floods were women and children.
“Who gathers firewood?” she remarked. “Who gathers water?”
According to UNICEF, women and girls spend 200 million hours collecting water every day. “Women at the bottom of the pyramid cannot bring their voices to the table,” she said as she recommended the following:
- Inclusion of GBV (gender-based violence) response services and mechanisms in essential services that keep functioning during calamities
- Clarity in reproductive services and their protocols
- A COVID-19 education for all nurses, doctors and lady health workers
- Safety protocols for trans women
- An increase in the capacity for shelters
- Creating more helpline services that are operated during emergencies
- Laws ensuring equal pay, protective mechanisms and fixed working hours
- Regular teaching and tech courses to equip instructors with changing dynamics in education
Sherry Rehman praised Justice Ayesha A Malik of the Lahore High Court, who declared the two-finger, hymen tests of women who had been raped as “illegal and unconstitutional” on January 4, 2021. Even the WHO says the test has no scientific merit and is a human rights violation.
“Mukhtar [Mai] stands morally vindicated in light of this ruling,” Sherry Rehman said, adding that her gang rape had left everyone “shamed and shaken to the core” and that the law failed to deliver justice.
“I hope this Women’s Day will be about more than just celebrating the achievements of women who have cut through intense patriarchy across the class divide, but also discusses important structural changes that must not be put behind,” she said in closing.