COVID-19, the Right to Life, and Domestic Violence – Haniya Hasan

COVID-19 has managed to disrupt much of ordinary life, confining us to our homes, and shuttering up the world around us. A welcome change this might be for many, but not for one group of the especially vulnerable: women who suffer domestic violence. An alarming revelation that has appeared in various countries is the plight of women who are now effectively trapped with their abusers in their houses. This is the consequence of the global lockdown being implemented in many countries; not only are people told to stay inside, social care services like women shelters, support networks, and helplines have also closed their doors or limited their outreach.

This creates an intersectional dilemma with a lot of moving parts: protecting women and ensuring justice, all the while preventing the spread of infectious disease. In Pakistan, access to helplines and courts has been halted, discontinuing the relief they provided to Pakistani women. This is not just an occurrence in Pakistan, with Italy, France, the UK, and China also reporting the suspension of institutions and facilities aimed at protecting women. Consequently, all these countries have also reported a nationwide spike in domestic violence cases since lockdown.

Countries are facing an operational challenge; a balancing act of sorts to protect the population from disease as well as the violence borne out of close confinement. Here, the understanding and implementation of human rights law is crucial.

In a healthcare crisis of this magnitude, it is inevitable that particular human rights are given more priority over others operationally i.e. rights are not suspended in substance but are functionally overridden by public health precautions; e.g., protecting the right to life by providing necessary healthcare is more important than protecting the right to freedom of movement.

But within the rights that are prioritized in the circumstances, care must be taken not to overstate the healthcare aspect of rights. The right to life-saving treatment is not the only aspect of the right to life that needs to be respected by States right now. The right to life also empowers States to ensure that women are protected against domestic-violence and are provided with efficient facilities to give effect to that protection, including access to the legal system. The provision of helplines, shelters, and even court access (to process divorces, or to grant restraining orders) must continue with special government support.

Following a lockdown order, the loss of economic opportunities, confinement, and the anxiety resulting from such circumstances can all aggravate perpetrators to lash out against women. Much of the measures that we are seeing now in Europe such as requisitioning hotel rooms as safe shelters for victims to quarantine in have been ad-hoc as domestic-violence cases spiked following lockdown.

The government policy in any State, in the following weeks and months will need to highlight more permanent solutions to protect women from the psychological and/or physical trauma that is triggered in part by the necessary public health measures required to halt the spread of COVID-19.

Haniya Hasan is a legal researcher and academic, based in Islamabad, with an interest in public international law. She is a graduate of the University of London.

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