Across the Middle East, many women face a double threat: Abuser inside, virus outside

Iraqi women in Baghdad, Iraq, April 4, 2016. Photo by David Stanley via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

In many countries around the world, domestic violence is on the rise due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced people to shelter at home.

Under various lockdown and confinement orders, violence against women has surged — including in progressive democracies. France reported a 30 percent increase in domestic violence since the country went into lockdown, a figure similar to Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Brazil and China.

The issue remains largely unaddressed in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, where the violence in largely patriarchal societies is particularly acute. Here, the COVID-19 pandemic intervenes concurrently with large-scale conflicts, uprising and economic depression.

This situation has prompted the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to speak out against a “horrific outbreak of domestic violence,” and to call for urgent government action.

When home is a dangerous place

Violence against women is not a recent scourge in the MENA region, where rates remain high in overall assessments of gender equality. Sexual and gender-based violence is chronic and endemic. The “intimate partner” is the most common perpetrator of violence. 

Women face a wide range of legal discriminations and patriarchal social norms in MENA countries, where participation in public and civic space is low — only 25 percent join the workforce.

Now, as families are forced to stay close together at home, violence has escalated in scale and severity throughout the region. Tunisia has reported a five-fold increase in gender-based violence since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to the Tunisian Minister of Women, Children and the Elderly, Asma Shiri Laabidi.

Crowded accommodation and poor living conditions exacerbate the experience of hyper surveillance and monitoring among large families living in close quarters. According to Yosra Frawes, the president of the Tunisian Association of Women Democrats:

Many women report feeling that they are suffocating as a result of the physical proximity to their husbands who are watching their every move.

In Lebanon, where massive uprisings were raging against corruption and a poor economy before the virus forced a lockdown, domestic violence had risen 20 percent.

In Morocco, a 2019 government survey found that more than half of women experienced violence yet less than 7 percent reported it. A group of women’s rights organizations recently sounded the alarm and sent a letter to authorities with a clear message: “Home has become the most dangerous place for women.”

Physical violence is usually the final stage of a long chain that begins with verbal abuse and may also include sexual abuse. Najia Tazrout, head of the Anjad against gender-based vilolence, a Moroccan women’s rights organization says: 

Marital rape is a taboo and women don’t talk about it. Women accept this violence because they are financially dependent on their husband who is often the only breadwinner in the family.

Disrupted support networks

Many women now find themselves under lockdown for an indefinite period of time with their abusers. Due to travel restrictions or fear of exposure to the virus, women can no longer seek refuge at their parents’ home. They become more isolated and unable to access networks of support and social services.

The few public institutions and organizations providing support to women — many shelters, safe spaces, and women’s health centers — were closed or under strain from working with bare budgets. Family planning services were also closed. Courts were put on hold and the police have mostly focused on enforcing lockdowns across the region.

Hend, a victim from Morocco, who only gives her first name, reported that “shelters, fearing the virus, refused to receive women.”

According to the director of ABAAD, a nonprofit organization that runs shelters for women in Lebanon and operates as a resource center for gender equality:

With the cases that are turning up at the shelters right now, we’re seeing a violence more severe than before the financial crisis and even during the revolution. There are more death threats.

Murder cases are also being reported. On April 17, a man shot his mother and sister to death in the Beqaa Valley, according to a statement from the Lebanese army.

An underreported scourge

Even with several alarming reports on domestic violence surges, the true extent of the violence is likely larger and remains untold.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), violence against women is the most widespread, but least reported type of human rights abusesFear, cultural norms and stigma are among the barriers dissuading women from reporting attacks.

A recent survey by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) found that 75 percent of women in Iraq do not feel comfortable reporting violence to the police, fearing additional abuse and cultural stigma.

The lack of legal protection against domestic violence and access to economic resources also deter women from speaking out.

In Kuwait, there are no laws criminalizing domestic and sexual violence against women. In Iraq, a husband has the right to “punish” his wife, and parents are allowed to discipline their children “within limits prescribed by law or custom.”

COVID-19: A predominantly male response ignores women's rights

Governments have imposed lockdowns without planning for or making sufficient provisions to tackle gender-based violence generated by confinement.

While domestic violence spikes during emergencies — especially when couples spend long periods of time together under the same roof — women's rights were simply not part of the response.

Suad Abu-Dayyeh, from Equality Now, concludes that governments in the region have “completely forgotten the whole issue of the violence-against-women aspect of coronavirus.” The lack of preparation and the delays in tackling the violence means that irreparable harm has occurred that could have been avoided.

The gendered response to the pandemic has been framed as a “war effort” in the region — which replicates patriarchal gender dynamics.

While women have been heavily mobilized to the frontline as health care staff, considering that they make up 70 percent of all health care workers, according to WHO, they are also the main caregivers.

According to the International Labour Organization, women perform 76 percent of the total hours of unpaid care work — more than three times as much as men.

Women have been confined to a primary role and side-lined from higher executive decisions. They are underrepresented in the political response. Decisions-makers in the region are overwhelmingly men and women political representation is at the lowest levels in the world.

Male leaders have devised a strategic response to the pandemic in terms of budgets and plans that do not prioritize women's issues. The media also replicates this imbalance of power. Men predominantly lead public discussions on COVID-19 and act as main sources of information.

The pandemic has once again exposed the dire state of women’s rights in the region and exacerbated the silent but deadly pandemic of domestic violence.

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