Gender and Covid-19 by Aimen Akhtar

While the world is engaged in examining the impact of Covid-19 on the economy and on business relations, little has been said about the devastating effect of this pandemic within the domestic arena in Pakistan.

One reason for such ignorance can be attributed to the culture of normalizing the hardships borne by women. It would not be unwise to say that the focus of any horrible event, be it a health emergency crisis, economic disparity, social marginalization or otherwise, on the lives of women has been the least priority of any government in Pakistan.

A huge percentage of women perform unpaid domestic work. While recent debates are highlighting the obstacles faced by women confined to their households, the outbreak of Covid-19 and subsequent strict countrywide lockdowns highlight new issues. First of all, the measures adopted by the government of Pakistan to lockdown entire cities meant that more people would be quarantined at their homes; resultantly, more people were required to be taken care of. This included the elderly who are at a greater mortal risk, men who were otherwise involved in their jobs, and children who are unable to attend school.

The norm that it is women who have the responsibility to take care of each household chore was exacerbated during the lockdown period. Women spend 4.9 hours and 6.7 hours on average doing domestic work in urban and rural areas of Punjab respectively. This figure surged to a 24-hour job during the lockdown period.

The second issue which further colours the effect of the first issue was the lack of distribution of the burden of responsibility between men and women. The notion of men-at-work used to be frequently used to charge women with the burden of unpaid domestic work. However, Covid-19 and the successive lockdown measures either resulted in country-wide business shutdown or restricted the number of work hours; consequently, a majority of men, excluding those having home-based jobs, were no longer at duty. Despite this, according to a policy brief published by the UN, men failed to share even a spoonful of domestic responsibility.

Such trends across the country reinforced the existing notions of inequality among genders; the long-held idea that women are expected to bear the burden of domestic work because men are in charge of the outside work crumbled during the lockdown period. Rather, it is the deeply embedded patriarchal mindset of the Pakistani society that women were laden with added household work during the lockdown phase.

The outcome of the lockdown is more than this. Domestic abuse augmented worldwide. It would come as no surprise to foresee a similar fate in Pakistan, a country already susceptible to innumerable domestic violence cases where 28 percent of women aged between 15 and 49 years have experienced physical violence. Though the country has shifted from a strict lockdown to a ‘smart lockdown’, a large percentage of men have been laid off by their employers, and consequently are forced to spend an ample amount of time at home.

The issue is of particular concern because divorce rates are increasing at an exponential rate after the end of the lockdown period in numerous other countries. Lawyers were also expecting a rise in divorce cases due to mandatory and self-imposed quarantine periods. One can point to a multitude of causes behind this, of which increased domestic abuse (both physical and psychological) is one. Experts termed it ‘intimate terrorism’; institutions and governments were no longer able to respond to such crises because their primary concern was to prevent the collapse of the economy. A similar trend can be anticipated in Pakistan.

These issues need to be brought to the forefront, not just in the academic circle, but also on a wider public scale. The current government of Pakistan led by Prime Minister Imran Khan ought to take notice of the severe aftermath of this pandemic in the domestic sphere. Likewise, the citizens of Pakistan also need to broaden their focus of analysis by including the impact of Covid-19 in private household spheres. There is no end to the struggle against patriarchy (at least in the near future) and once again patriarchal notions have been reiterated, this time through the prevalence of Covid-19.

The writer is a law graduate.

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