Nearly a month after Lebanon went into lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus, women are reporting increasing violence at home, but activists and judges say the system designed to help them is not working.
Women’s aid groups have reported an increase in online reports of domestic abuse since the lockdown began on March 15.
“My phone has not stopped ringing day and night since the lockdown measures started,” said a judge specialising in domestic violence cases, who asked to remain anonymous.
Quantifying the scale of the domestic violence problem is impossible at the best of times due to a lack of centralised data recording, but women’s rights NGOs are noticing increases.
ABAAD, a Lebanese NGO that campaigns for gender equality, recorded 153 calls in March, which represents a 20 per cent increase compared to the same month last year.
“Some women had suicidal thoughts and needed mental health support,” said ABAAD’s director, Ghida Anani.
Additionally, the number of women asking for shelter because they feared for their life doubled to eight last month, Mrs Anani said.
In its March report, Kafa, another NGO that supports victims of domestic violence, said it had experienced an increase in first-time calls for help through social media, though it did not provide figures.
The number of telephone calls to its helpline did not rise, which suggests that some victims are afraid of speaking on the phone because they live with their abusers, the report found.
“We know that because of social, psychological and logistical barriers, women are not able to reach out to us,” Mrs Anani said.
The organisations’ observations have been accompanied by startling tales of abuse reported in the Lebanese media.
On April 5, two young women aged 17 and 20 jumped from their second-floor balcony to escape their family, leaving one of them critically injured.
The next day, the police arrested the father of a six-year-old Syrian girl after he beat her to death. Syrians who fled the civil war in their home country represent roughly one quarter of Lebanon’s population.
Hoda, a 31-year old Syrian woman, fled to a shelter run by ABAAD early March for the first time after 11 years in an abusive marriage. She had started fearing for her life as well as her daughter's.
Three years after becoming the breadwinner after her husband’s diagnosis with schizophrenia, she lost her job, bringing financial problems and increased time under one roof with her husband.
As Lebanon began implementing precautionary measures six weeks ago, “pressure went up,” she said. “I couldn’t leave the house or do anything.”
When she saw one of her husband’s relatives beat her 7-year-old daughter with an electric cable, she decided to run away with her. ABAAD withheld her name for her safety.
Hoda’s husband’s violence was exacerbated by his lack of access to medical treatment, which the family could not afford when Hoda stopped working, she said. “In the end, my husband could not recognise me or my daughter,” she said.
The judge also noticed a recent spike in cases of violence perpetrated by men with mental health conditions. In a recent case, she ordered the police to force a man to take his medication for schizophrenia because he had refused to do so and threatened to kill his wife.
“Mental health institutions refuse new patients because of the coronavirus, so I have to find solutions despite the lack of options,” the judge said.
Activists say Lebanese law does not sufficiently protect victims of domestic violence, which may discourage them from complaining to the police.
The country’s only domestic violence law, which was brought in six years ago, allows a woman to ask for a restraining order against her abuser but does not permit a judge to order the abuser's imprisonment if he breaches the order. It also does not criminalise marital rape.
Additionally, doctors are not allowed to inform the police about a suspected case of domestic violence, said Claudine Aoun Roukoz, the president of the National Commission for Lebanese women.
“We encourage neighbours to report cases of violence, because women only call when they are at a breaking point,” she said.
Fear of defamation and social pressure also play a role in discouraging women from contacting the police.
After she ran away, Hoda’s husband filed a complaint against her, alleging that she was a prostitute. This was to diminish her chances of keeping custody of her daughter, she said. “In our society, it’s always the woman’s fault, not the man’s.”
The National Commission for Lebanese Women is trying to make it easier for women to seek protection from the state. Mrs Roukoz asked the Telecoms Minister to make the police hotline dedicated to domestic violence free to call. She is waiting for a response.
She has also been lobbying state prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat to look into the issue of domestic abuse. Mr Oueidat told The National that starting April 14, he would instruct Lebanese judges to question victims of domestic violence by video call instead of requiring them to be physically present after they lodge a complaint. This measure had already been adopted on March 20 for detainees amid fears of the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Though video calls still represent a risk for a woman confined in a home with an abusive husband, it allows her to lodge a complaint without having to go to the police station in person. However, it has not been decided yet if this measure would be lifted when confinement ends. “We need exceptional measures for exceptional circumstances,” Mrs Roukoz said.
Mr Oueidat said he was considering a request from the National Commission for Lebanese Women for the Justice Ministry to punish doctors who refuse to examine abused women who rely on a state-funded programme that guarantees their right to free medical treatment.
The commission asked that such doctors be temporarily suspended or withdrawn completely from the list of the ministry's approved medical examiners.
This reluctance to treat women stems from a financial dispute between medical staff and the state, the judge said. The state reimburses them only 40 per cent of the agreed rate of 65,000 Lebanese pounds (Dh158) for an in-office consultation and 85,000 pounds for a consultation at a police station. Medical practitioners have no choice but to accept this.
This practice only covers women who cannot afford a doctor. Otherwise, they personally pay between 150,000 and 300,000 pounds, the judge said.
“I do not know why, but the state does not pay its contractors fully and this does not only apply to the judicial sector,” she said. The Lebanese government struggled to control its expenditure for decades and went without a budget between 2005 and 2017.
If a doctor refuses to examine a victim of domestic violence, the police inform the judge who can then lodge a complaint with the Justice Ministry. But a medical examiner’s refusal may weaken her case against her abuser. When this happens, the judge can appoint another doctor or ask the police to write down the traces of violence that they observe on the woman’s body.
“We cannot count on the sensitivity of each judge to cases of domestic violence,” Mrs Roukoz said.