The Pandemic Inside the Pandemic – How We Move Forward for Women in the Arab Region

We are in the middle of a second pandemic, a hidden pandemic. Like COVID-19, this pandemic is dire, global, and ongoing. Violence against women is the pandemic resulting from the pandemic. For many women, “stay at home” is a message that brings great risk. The tendency to “other” instances of gender-based violence was never logical, especially now. COVID-19 is a global pandemic, meaning that women everywhere are affected, some worse than others. Many women who are experiencing the worst of the COVID-19 crisis are located in the Arab world.

In the Arab region, women already experience much violence in the status quo. The prevalence of gender-based violence in the Arab world is at a high 37%, the most common forms of violence being emotional abuse, physical violence, and denial of resources. Nearly 4 out of 5 women experience emotional abuse, and more than half are subjected to physical violence and denial of resources. More than one fifth of women experience family violence in Yemen, Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, and Algeria, although it is largely underreported.

Worse, women often cannot escape because of social norms and a lack of legal protection. One reason women cannot escape violence is that women fear judgement for leaving their husbands because societies in the Arab world largely do not tolerate women living alone. One third of people in North Africa believe that women providing for families financially is not acceptable which means that women are often not able to make their own money to provide for themselves or for their families, and they are often reliant on a partner for financial support. Another reason that women often cannot escape violence is the fear of leaving their children with an abusive father or family member. Many domestic violence shelters do not allow children, and now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an even more limited capacity at shelters. As of 2019, only 6 Arab countries have laws that protect against violence against women. However, these laws are not truly effective according to human rights watch.

Seeking services and support in the form of shelter and safety from a partner is difficult under normal circumstances and even more difficult in times of insecurity, including natural disasters, war, or disease. Women in the Arab world are already vulnerable to violence, and any crisis, especially the COVID-19 pandemic, worsens the situation drastically.

For the past 18 months, the restrictions due to the COVID-19 crisis have negatively impacted women’s lives. Early statistics in a range of countries show that lockdown has increased reports of intimate partner violence. And reported cases will always underestimate reality.

The pandemic has caused an increase in domestic violence, fewer legal resources and support for women, and reduced access to health and humanitarian services. Since the beginning of lockdown, women have also experienced decreased independence, exacerbated gendered access to technology, and an increase in unpaid and domestic work. Finally, women are disproportionately more vulnerable to exploitation and disease, especially women refugees and migrant workers.

For many women and girls, the message to “stay at home” is risky and being quarantined safely is a luxury. During the first month of lockdown, reported cases of violence against women rose by 100% in Lebanon, and reported domestic violence cases rose by 33% in Jordan. 62% of Syrian refugees and Jordanian women also said felt an increased risk of physical or psychological violence.

Lockdown and curfew have forced women to spend more time with abusive partners. 

Travel restrictions have prevented men from leaving the house for work, and women are not able to leave the house to communicate with others, making it easier for abusers to isolate them from friends and loved ones. Abusers may also restrict women’s access to news or other sources of information, preventing them from knowing about or accessing vital services. 

Increased financial stress may also cause men to take out the pressure on women. Women who were already experiencing violence before lockdown are the most vulnerable, as they experienced a 73% increased rate of violence during lockdown. However, even women who did not experience violence before lockdown have experienced a 12% rate of violence.

Not only has violence increased but ways to escape and condemn violence have decreased. Financial resources for women are now going toward combating the coronavirus. Police and justice systems have also deprioritized domestic violence to enforce lockdown and health measures, causing 57% of women to feel less safe in their communities and 44% of women to feel less safe in their homes.

In Lebanon, sexual harassment and blackmail has increased by a shocking 184%. Also, female genital cutting in Somalia rose by 31% during the first months of lockdown

Female genital cutting has increased because the economic downturn has caused cutters to search for more business. Men would go door to door asking to perform genital cutting on household girls.

Health, police, justice, and social services programs have been negatively impacted. During lockdown, courts were unable to receive new cases, and procedures for legal redress, custody, and alimony cases were put on hold. There has also been an increase in informal or traditional justice mechanisms, which includes community mediation or dispute resolution through family members or traditional leaders. These methods often end up returning women to the cycle of violence.

Not only have legal services been impacted but humanitarian services as well. Over 62.5 million people in the Arab region are in need of humanitarian assistance right now. Women’s access to reproductive health care and assistance for survivors have been interrupted. This is because, like legal resources, health systems and social services have been diverted to coronavirus response. In some cases, women’s shelters, safe spaces, and other sites have been converted to COVID-19 response centers. Restrictions on movement during lockdown have also made it difficult for women to meet pregnancy, labor, and postpartum needs.

Women are also disproportionately more vulnerable to exploitation and disease. While unpaid work for women has increased, paid work has decreased. Women have been engaging in insecure labor due to financial insecurity, causing them to be prone to trade sex for food rent, or supplies. A large proportion of women in the Arab world work in manufacturing and service industries, which also happened to be two of the most negatively impacted industries during the pandemic. Many women have lost their jobs and have been disproportionately affected by the economic downturn.

In quarantine centers, officials have been taking advantage of their new power by sexually and financially exploiting women. Quarantine spaces are also characterized by poor lighting, over-crowding, and lack of sex-segregated hygiene, all of which puts women at risk for violence.

Furthermore, over 74 million people in the Arab world still lack access to handwashing facilities. Because women are mainly responsible for collecting water, this means that women have to congregate at public sources to collect water, increasing their risk of exposure to the virus. This issue is especially dire for women refugees in Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon whose only access to sanitation is in camps where water shortages are common.

A feminist, gender-informed response is the only way forward

Women in the Arab world have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic. We must not only repair the harm that has been inflicted on women but change the deep inequalities that led to such disproportionate suffering in the first place. We need to hold governments accountable and develop a feminist response to the virus.

Response to violence against women must be integrated into COVID-19 relief policies. COVID-19 and violence against women go hand-in-hand. Any crisis results in an increase in violence against women, so any legislation regarding COVID-19 must also address women’s issues. Women frontline responders, women leaders, women-led organizations, and youth rights groups should all be part of the design and implementation of COVID relief measures.

It is important to adapt stay-at-home policies to women’s needs and ensure that violence against women prevention is designated essential during any crisis. National and sub-national legislation is needed to ensure the continuity of GBV response services during quarantine, including implementing policies to ensure that a budget is always available for emergency response to violence.

Because many women are trapped at home, it has been hard to call for help without drawing attention. Technology-based solutions are important in adopting more inconspicuous help-signaling methods for women. Smartphone apps should include panic buttons that link directly to the location of support services and should also provide a confidential chat option or remote psychological counseling for support. Technology is also essential for secure data and evidence collection. Regular data collection on violence against women trends will help guide accurate prosecution, emergency response, and evidence-based policy that prioritizes women’s needs and reduces adverse effects in the future.

It is important to ensure that women and girls can continue distance-learning during the pandemic and future contexts of insecurity. Also, because women are largely responsible for keeping their families healthy and managing resources, information on proper pandemic response should be circulated in relevant languages, with a focus on reaching women and children.

Implementing alternative housing options and shelters that allow children will help women feel safer and more confident in escaping an abusive situation. Shelters should be prepared to accept women and their children. Domestic violence shelters should also increase their preparedness for crises by incorporating protocols and measures to protect women from pandemics.

It is also important that social organizations and governments organize campaigns directed at bystander engagement and awareness. This can be implemented by distributing posters in commercial and public spaces such as grocery stores, pharmacies, and elevators. Television, radio, internet, and social media are also helpful ways to distribute effective information about helplines and call on bystanders to recognize and speak out against domestic violence.

Arab governments should implement legal protections for female health workers to protect them from increased exposure to the virus as well as vulnerability to sexual harassment and violence. Social protection measures, including health insurance, unemployment benefits, emergency financial aid, and tax exemption measures, should be expanded to ensure support for women fleeing violence.

COVID-19 demands a swift and concerted global response to contain the virus while also protecting the most vulnerable — placing women’s safety and women’s rights at the heart of the response. For the majority of women, their challenges do not end when the crisis is resolved. For women and girls, the crisis is just beginning.