Pandemic hardships threaten lasting setback for women in the Middle East

Domestic violence and child marriages have increased, activists say as the world marks International Women’s Day on March 8

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Radwa Hassoun’s 27-year-old son was not usually violent.

It was when he lost his job at a Beirut restaurant and moved home that he started hitting his teenage sisters.  Radwa found one of the girls crying outside a few months ago after he beat her badly on the back.

“I felt so sad because I couldn’t do anything,” she says.

As his frustration grew, the violence increased. He disliked seeing his sisters continuing their schooling online, and questioned what they were using their phones while ordering them around like servants in their tiny, two-room house.

“Sometimes he apologises and says he didn’t mean it, but then he gets angry and hits them again,” says Radwa, 45, a refugee from Syria who lives in the Bekaa region.

Other women she knows have faced similar difficulties during the coronavirus lockdowns, which coincided with a deepening economic crisis in Lebanon leaving many out of work and struggling to survive.

Job losses, mounting financial problems and the tensions of being confined at home all day have contributed to a surge in domestic violence across the country.

Women’s helplines have reported a dramatic rise in calls since the start of the pandemic.

“Usually, the calls we receive are from women that are already on our books, but during the pandemic a huge number of people were calling to report first-time incidents of domestic violence,” says Ghina Al Andary, case and outreach worker at Kafa, which supports victims of gender-based violence and exploitation in Lebanon.

During the first month of Lebanon’s lockdown, which began on March 15, 2020, Kafa’s helpline received 75 new calls – similar to the previous year.

In April, it received 562 in total, twice the number in March, and by the end of May this had risen to 938 calls. Other hotline services in the country report a similar spike.

“In the first month it was still new and manageable, but as the crisis continued the problems increased,” Ms Al Andary says.

The situation is reflected across the region and worldwide, with the UN warning of a "shadow pandemic" of violence against women and girls and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres writing recently in The Guardian that, "in a matter of months, progress on gender equality has been set back decades".

For those already living in vulnerable situations, including displacement camps across the region, the suffering is often intensified.

Monitoring a ‘shadow pandemic’

Despite the dramatic increase, helpline services say the rise in calls does not convey the full scale of the problem.

A recent Kafa report says “it is very hard to call and ask for help when the abuser is in the house”. It cited a drop in the number of calls from Syrian refugee women during lockdowns, when they were prevented from leaving the camps and NGO services were on hold.

Radwa sees the bruises on women who come to the Chinese Medicine Clinic she runs – now with the help of her daughters to keep them out of harm’s way at home.

“Women come to me with injuries from violence a lot, to the extent that I can’t listen to all the stories because it’s too much.”

She refers them to Abaad, an NGO that campaigns for gender equality in Lebanon.

"The men are starting to assume that no one can help the survivors so they feel more comfortable being aggressive because they think they cannot be held accountable," says Zeinab Mortada, senior gender-based violence case management supervisor at Abaad.

Both the frequency and severity of the violence has increased, she says, with women who previously suffered emotional abuse at the hands of male family members reporting that it turned physical during the pandemic.

In the refugee camps of northern Iraq, women and girls face similar struggles, but NGOs here also fear that underreporting obscures the true picture.

“Rising tensions in cramped accommodation within the camps caused a huge increase in domestic and sexual violence …(but) … those trapped in an abusive household are often unable to speak out due to social norms that consider this to be shameful,” says Taban Shoresh, founder of The Lotus Flower, which works with women and girls in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

A recent assessment by the organisation found that 89 per cent of participants had witnessed or experienced GBV towards women and girls since the onset of Covid-19. When its staff were able to re-enter the camps after lockdown was lifted on May 1, 2020, they heard daily horror stories about incidents of violence.

Rise in early marriage and sexual assault

There are signs that other harmful practices have increased too. Medecins Sans Frontieres midwife Aisha Akello has noticed more teenage girls coming to the maternity clinic she works at in Sinjar and fears some may be victims of rape.

“I hear about sexual violence in the community and it worries me a lot but when it happens they don’t go to hospital or reveal it to anybody … people treat it as very confidential because they know the victim will be blamed and may even be killed by their relatives.”

She is also concerned about the rising risk of child marriages as families struggle to make ends meet.

The UN refugee agency reported an increase in child marriages between August and October as families faced increased financial hardship because of lockdowns.

The Lotus Flower’s Covid impact assessment supported these findings, with 69 per cent of respondents saying they knew girls under 18 who married immediately before or during the pandemic.

The violence has affected mental health for some women, with the organisation reporting a rise in depression and suicide among female refugees and IDPs. Most of the women they work with come from the Yazidi community and were already in a vulnerable position before the pandemic.

“Many were still struggling to come to terms with the ISIS attacks of 2014, in which they were taken and held as sex slaves, or subjected to rape, violence, trafficking and torture. The Covid-19 crisis has re-triggered these past experiences and ordeals for many,” Ms Shoresh says.

New trends in abuse

While the pandemic has exacerbated existing problems facing women, it has also given rise to new trends that undermine their social and economic security.

In Lebanon, the detrimental impact on the rights of migrant domestic workers was highlighted last year when videos circulated on social media showed the plight of Kenyan and Ethiopian women left outside their embassies by employers unable to pay their salaries. “There was nowhere for these women to go – the shelters were not accepting them, the consulates were closed, so they were left on the street,” says Ms Al Andary.

Some employers even put their domestic staff up for sale online, she says. “They would post her picture and details, offering to waive her sponsorship fee for $500 or similar.” While waiving the sponsorship of a worker is legal, charging a fee is not, but the system endorses such practices, Ms Al Andary says.

“We see this as plain human trafficking … what really was evident during the pandemic and the economic crisis is just how bad it can get when the state withdraws from the employer-worker relationship and leaves them to figure it out on their own. We saw how monstrous it could be – the entire system failed and crumbled, so it has to go, and we believe this is the time to do it.”

Lasting impact on women and girls

While the vaccines bring some hope of an end to lockdowns, women’s rights campaigners say the negative trends are likely to continue, with new types of violence gaining traction as the effects of the pandemic continue to be felt.

A UN Women survey of the impact of Covid-19 on violence against women in nine countries across the region found that online harassment was the most commonly reported in all of them as perpetrators sought new spaces “due to social distancing and other measures preventing gathering and in person contacts”.

Other impacts of the pandemic continue to be felt disproportionately by women, with an estimated 700,000 losing jobs in 2020, according to a UN report that highlights “the serious threat to women’s engagement in economic activities, which is likely to further increase staggering gender gaps in livelihoods and labour force participation in the region”.

In Jordan, where nurseries and schools were closed for long periods, the burden of care fell on mothers. “Many working women had to make the hard decision to stay at home,” says Salma Nims, secretary general of the Jordanian National Council for Women. “Now women are losing jobs.”

Access to education for women, which is high in Jordan, is also being undermined by the pandemic, she says.

“The pandemic is threatening the achievements gained over the last 50 years. With women and girls being pushed back to the home and education still mostly dependent on online studying, the concept of women having to stay at home and her priority being to household responsibilities will impact the already very vulnerable situation of female economic participation in Jordan.”

Meanwhile the rise in rates of sexual and domestic violence will be difficult to suppress. “These increases will be lasting, and continue to cause profound harm,” says Ms Shoresh. “The impact of any crisis is borne most heavily by women and girls …[and] … this region was vastly ill-prepared for a sufficient Covid-19 response.”

For Radwa, the solution is finding strength in herself and supporting other women. In the past, she fled her husband’s violence; now she seeks solace from her son’s aggression in her work at the clinic, and encourages her daughters to do the same.

“I cannot save myself while they are suffering at home. I am stronger now and I want my daughters to have the education I couldn’t continue,” she said.