Even before the current crises originating from the explosion and the pandemic, Lebanon was not doing well in terms of women’s rights and equality. In 2020, the country ranked 145th out of a total of 153 countries in overall gender disparities and 12th out of 16 Arab countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. Lebanon ranked 136th out of 153 countries in economic participation and opportunity as well as 149th out of 153 countries in political empowerment. Lebanon consistently ranked low in female participation.
Women struggle in the workforce due to outdated stereotypes and misogynist cultures that question women’s intellect and competency. They are the first to be fired and the last to be rehired. Women often don’t join the formal economy as a result of discrimination and instead create their own informal economy by making and selling their own items. Historically, women will do whatever it takes to care for their children. Due to Covid-19 and the explosion, and the insecurity in their aftermath, many children are out of school and at home during the day leaving women to struggle to take care of their children, the house, and their professional duties. Schools gave women a chance to leave the house and do their work and now women must stay home either to help the children with online school or stay with them if their school was canceled.
In Lebanese political structures, women are severely under-represented and those that are in the system have become increasingly frustrated with the rampant corruption and sectarian power plays that have debilitated Lebanon for decades. The last government had 30% female representation with 6 women as ministers, yet they were unaware of what women needed. Recently, they refused to include sanitary pads as a subsidized product on a list of imports. What may seem like a small example is actually an indicator of a perpetuation and increase of what people call “period poverty,” a small pillar of a wide foundation built to keep women in insecurity.
As the Covid-19 pandemic progressed, many women found themselves caring for the sick at home or in the hospitals, making them more exposed to the virus. The nursing sector in Lebanon consists of 79.52% female from the Order of Nurses. These nurses face trauma from the blast. As the economy has worsened, nurses are paid less and expected to work longer hours. This gendered economic immobility prevents some young girls from gaining access to mental health resources as they have no access to an income. Between mid-March and June of 2020, over 300 calls were made to the National Emotional Support and Suicide Prevention Helpline, 50% of which were women and 16% of whom were actively contemplating suicide. Many women report feeling socially isolated and are experiencing major stress in regards to trauma, loss, family discord, relationship problems, and financial difficulties.
During times of crisis, girls are the first to be pulled out of school and the last to return. Many girls are expected to do additional labor at home and in poorer households, girls are denied education altogether. With Covid-19 and school being canceled, children have lost a year of education and social interaction. We don’t know how the long-term effects of social isolation will impact young people, but we can anticipate that the effects will have long term ramifications and will require explicit attention.
Violence against women increases during times of insecurity, and the pandemic is no exception. The numbers of calls received by the NGO hotlines in March 2020 was double that recorded in the same period of 2019. KAFA, which means ‘Enough’ in Arabic, reports that the number of calls that received has increased by 4.5 times between March and June of 2020 from 299 to 1371 calls. New calls increased three-fold from 75 to 236 between that time period. ABAAD, meaning dimensions in Arabic, is a Resource Centre for Gender Equality that found that domestic violence cases were up 20% since March 2020. The pandemic resulted in exacerbating pre-existing cases of intimate partner violence as well as creating new cases. For women and girls, being quarantined safely is a luxury.
LGBTQ populations, female migrant domestic workers, refugees, and other groups were already vulnerable before the pandemic. When Lebanon got rid of the US Dollar, they prevented female migrant domestic workers from sending money to their families. They also cannot leave the house as their employer’s fear that they might get Covid and, with their employers at home, they are expected to work all day. Many domestic workers are abused sexually, physically, physiologically, and economically although it has also increased drastically due to the stress from the deteriorating economic climate and health risks. Due to the financial crisis, many employers have not paid their domestic workers or have left them on the streets outside the embassy as the employers refuse to pay their repatriation fees. The Embrace and the Internal Security Forces noted that during the first six months of 2020, 15% of suicides were committed by female foreign domestic workers as compared to 17% in all of 2019.
Discrimination against refugees has been rising as the narrative of refugees “taking Lebanese jobs” has been on the rise. Many refugees do not have a choice but to keep working in order to support their families. The UNHCR was able to provide emergency cash support to nearly 200,000 additional refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey who previously did not receive financial aid yet this is still not enough to keep the increasing refugee families from living well below the poverty line. ILO surveys found that the workforce has faced major layoffs with nearly 60% of respondents reporting that they had been permanently or temporarily laid-off; the majority of respondents were refugees. They are also blamed for spreading the virus as they were unable to stay home and unable to self-isolate for a majority of the pandemic. LGBTQ populations are forced to live in situations where their identities are negated or denied without the support of their communities and other outlets.
When the crises are over, the risks will not end for women. Life will be different in Lebanon going forward as the economy, politics, health, and infrastructure will all have been impacted. We need to be productive in mitigating risks for women and in making sure they are an active part of the recovery in leadership and decision-making roles. Our job is to ensure that women’s rights organizations and feminist activist have the tools and resources they need to advocate and act on behalf of women and girls. If women are once again left out of leadership roles in the response to the pandemic, the patriarchal consolidation of power in these areas will have devastating effects on women’s rights, equality, and autonomy. Women in Lebanon are an under-utilized asset. They are an economic force, and they are the country’s social safety net. Women are the ones who know who is in need, what they need, and how to get it to them. Centering women in the response will enable the country to recover better and to better withstand future shock. A Lebanon with women in the lead is better for everyone.