How the pandemic could set Arab women back

Conflict and economic downturn in the region are threatening to undo the progress made on gender-related issues

Syrian women wait to leave the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp holding relatives of alleged Islamic State (IS) group fighters, in the al-Hasakeh governorate in northeastern Syria, on November 24, 2020. A Kurdish official in charge of the region's camps, said 515 people from 120 families were returning to areas in the east of Deir Ezzor province, the first to do so after the Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria vowed to allow thousands of Syrians including the families of IS fighters out of the over-populated camp. / AFP / Delil SOULEIMAN
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The human toll of the crisis in Syria is well known to everyone who has followed it, even casually, since 2011. Over half a million are dead and half of the country’s pre-war population of 20 million are displaced, some internally and others in neighbouring countries, Europe and farther afield.

It is worth highlighting the impact that the war has had on women, and considering how these challenges have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, both in Syria and across the region.

A new report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a respected watchdog, puts the crisis in stark numbers, even though the organisation’s figures are likely to be more conservative given the stringent verification criteria it employs. It documented the death of 28,405 women during the war, 22,000 of whom were killed by forces loyal to the Syrian government, and 91 of whom were tortured to death. Moreover, 8,746 women have been forcibly disappeared, once again the vast majority at the hands of President Bashar Al Assad’s regime.

Women and children evacuated from the Islamic State (IS) group's embattled holdout of Baghouz arrive at a screening area held by the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, on March 6, 2019. More than 7000 people, mostly women and children, have fled the shrinking pocket over the past days, as US-backed forces press ahead with an offensive to crush holdout jihadists. / AFP / Bulent KILIC

The suffering extends further. SNHR documented the birth of 87 children in government detention centres, where they lacked any form of post-natal care, leading to the deaths of seven babies. It also recorded more than 8,000 incidents of sexual violence by government loyalists, including 879 in detention centres and 443 cases against girls under 18. The finding conforms with that of independent UN investigators, who declared in 2018 that rape and sexual violence were pervasive in the conflict.

In addition to direct violence by troops and security personnel, women, especially refugees, have been forced into the role of breadwinners for their families, given the death toll of military-age men. Women have also often borne the brunt of gender-based and domestic violence because of the conditions in refugee camps and the lack of economic opportunities there. As a correspondent, I interviewed women in Jordan and children in Lebanon who had been forced into early marriage or endured beatings by husbands and family members or witnessed violence in the war, all of which caused a myriad mental health issues and lifelong scars.

These economic and social challenges have been worsened in Syria and across the Middle East by the pandemic and all its subsequent effects of lockdowns, financial hardship and scarcity. UN officials have long warned that the pandemic could set back gender equality gains by decades and lead to a surge in gender-based violence. These issues are magnified in much of the Arab world, because women were under-represented in the workplace to begin with and because stronger traditional gender norms mean chores, caring for and educating children. Work-related sacrifices, therefore, are more likely to fall on their shoulders, even beyond the trends seen in western countries.

A policy briefing by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia and UN Women estimates that women could lose 700,000 jobs in the Middle East due to the pandemic, leading more of them to fall into poverty, particularly since women form a majority of the informal labour sector in the region. Covid-19 will also further restrict women’s access to various health services including during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum, as well as services for victims of domestic abuse, who will find themselves increasingly forced to live with the abusers.

This is evident in the findings of Arab Barometer, a non-partisan research network. Surveys by the organisation found that citizens in several Arab countries perceived a rise in violence against women since the start of the pandemic, including a shocking 63 per cent perceived increase in Tunisia, 41 per cent in Morocco and Algeria, 27 per cent in Jordan and 20 per cent in Lebanon.

Bereft of support and services, many of these women have turned to the only source of succour that has not been denied to them – religion. The survey found that Arabs were praying more frequently since the start of the pandemic, with women seeking refuge in prayer in far greater numbers. In Algeria, the number of women praying more was higher by 21 per cent than men. In Jordan, that figure is 13 per cent.

Fez, Morocco - August 29, 2009 - Women praying at El Idrissi Zawiya, a Sufi Center.  (Nicole Hill / The National)

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A policy briefing by two UN organisations estimates that women could lose 700,000 jobs in the Middle East due to the pandemic, leading more of them to fall into poverty

Winning the battle against gender inequality, made more difficult by the pandemic, begins by recognising the issue. That means surveying women and gathering data on important markers of gender inequality, like domestic abuse, the division of household labour and workplace discrimination. But it also means enacting policies that protect women and highlight their contributions, including as leaders and frontline and essential workers in the fight against the coronavirus, devising new ways to reach out to and protect victims of domestic and gender-based violence, providing economic protections to women and finding ways to keep schools open or, at least, to provide equitable and comprehensive distance learning options to children during the pandemic.

As the battle for gender equality continues, many long-held norms will need to be shattered. That job is hard enough. We cannot allow the heartbreaking backsliding caused by the pandemic to become a permanent feature of our families, homes and workplaces.

Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National