The alarming situation in relation to the state of domestic violence prevailing in the country is once again in the news following a report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), titled Gendered Impacts of the Covid-19 Pandemic in Central and West Asia, which termed the grievous social ill to be emerging as a silent pandemic in our society, and proving to be a serious menace to our social fabric.

Over the last few years, we have seen that the Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent lockdowns imposed in countries all over the world had an outsized adverse impact on the safety, health and socioeconomic outcomes for women. The case of Pakistani women is no different as highlighted by the ADB report where the pandemic only served to magnify the various tribulations that women in the country already faced.

The ADB report has revealed some distressing statistics from a survey carried out in Punjab and Sindh, which reported an increase in the incidence of threats of physical violence by 40 percent and that of physical assault from spouses by 46 percent. In addition, 14 percent of the surveyed women knew someone in their community who was threatened with physical harm by her husband, while 19 percent knew someone who was physically assaulted by her husband.

It is important to highlight how our societal and cultural make-up, which often views women through a highly misogynistic and regressive lens, ends up contributing to a situation where women routinely become victim of violence within their homes. Too many in the country may not even view domestic violence as a problem, which also means that victims may not be aware of their rights and may even see themselves to be at fault.

These regressive cultural norms and patriarchal attitudes contribute to an environment where women face highly unequal treatment, which in turn end up normalising or excusing violent behaviour, making it challenging for victims to seek help or escape abusive situations.

These societal attitudes are not confined to any one socioeconomic strata either as we regularly come across reports of women belonging to even privileged, educated backgrounds becoming prey to domestic violence, and even losing their lives.

In addition, women’s lack of economic independence also ends up contributing to this state of affairs as their financial dependence on their husbands makes it difficult for them to leave abusive relationships. Moreover, there is a certain stigma involved in reporting domestic violence as well as a lack of access to resources to file complaints – whether it is access to police, finances or to legal remedy.

In recent years, while all provinces as well as the federal government have enacted laws addressing domestic violence, the impact of these legislations has not been as far-reaching as hoped. The role of our legislators here leaves a lot to be desired. The passage of laws on domestic violence has often been accompanied by backlash from conservative quarters, and our legislators have been all too ready to acquiesce to the pressure imposed by these elements. There have been the inevitable referrals of some of these laws to the Council of Islamic Ideology, a body not exactly known for its progressive views on gender-related issues, and which back in 2016, went as far as to propose a bill that allowed a husband to “lightly” beat his wife “if needed”.

If we want to seriously address this perilous social ill that puts lives at risk, we need to firstly focus on challenging and changing deep-rooted societal and cultural beliefs. There is a need to promote gender equality and women’s financial independence and through legislative reforms that are aimed at fostering a more supportive and protective environment for women in Pakistan.