A World After Covid-19: Charting a Path for Gender Justice in the Arab Region

There was a recent, critical, event that can be useful in creating a path forward for gender equity and justice in a post-COVID world: Accelerating Gender Justice in the Arab States region: a pathway to achieving the 2030 Agenda post-COVID.

Fadia Kiwan spoke about the context of the economic crisis in Lebanon where women: were the first to be fired since men are considered the “providers of the household,” have suffered under the double burden of working from home and supporting the family and the children, and have been facing increases in violence.

WE NEED: to look at the labor laws and amend them to protect women and provide them with facilities, as well as close the gap between unequal work for men and women at home; to strengthen women’s public affairs roles, where women have weak power; support by women’s NGOs, and gender mainstreaming implementation. The contribution of women in the Agenda of 2030, should focus on social change and gender mainstreaming. We also need to engage men in gender mainstreaming and public policies.

Fatema Barkan spoke on the several challenges in Morocco as the suffering and crisis is ongoing. There have been some steps to support families and women through creating a committee to take quick decisions regarding this support. The decisions involved the private sector because one sector only should not take the fall of the results of COVID-19. It was important to support people in the informal sectors since most of these workers are women. Support cards were provided for people with a focus on women. Social media campaigns focused on supporting women in finding shelters if needed and especially those who suffered from violence. During the lockdown, we were able to develop a national plan that already existed. We developed it and were able to reach a larger number of women: 199,000 women benefited from the support programs.

Shamsa Saleh spoke on the status of the United Arab Emirates. She regards the UAE as one of the best success cases in managing the pandemic. For example, the Minister of Education managed to support women who have children attending online school by sending them paid leave from their work to support their children. Gender equality is extremely important and is included in the long-term plan of the UAE for the next 50 years. They are looking at alternative working ways, especially remote work, to make the pandemic an opportunity. In regards to political participation, there is a 50% quota for women in parliament. All companies and banks are obliged to treat both women and men equally as well. There is a new protection law: a law to protect women and girls and all family members without discrimination. There are nurseries in companies exceeding 50 employees. These are the types of efforts being made.

The UN Women Regional Director Arab States, Susanne Mikhail Eldhagen, shared preliminary research from a UN Women and partners study on Access to Justice Mechanisms for SGBV Cases of Syrian Refugee Women and at-risk population in Lebanon.

Some Findings:

There is a high prevalence of gender-based violence against Syrian Refugee Women in Lebanon, which increased during Covid-19 and the economic crisis. Women are afraid to appeal to state justice services out of fear of arrest or abuse. Even if they decide to come forward, there are limited legal protections, services, and information available.

Syrian refugee women confront social, legal, and structural barriers to the formal justice system, often turning to informal justice mechanisms. Patriarchal socio-cultural expectations expect women to endure abuse and avoid formal justice mechanism, especially in instances of family violence. Lack of legal residency, economic fragility, lack of information about rights, and dependence on perpetrators exacerbate these life threatening issues.

Male-dominated and patriarchal justice structures control women’s choices. Men make up the majority of police and judges. Male leaders with decision making power in refugee communities are men, particularly among Sheikh and Shawish communities.

ACTIONS & SOLUTIONS

-Provide proper accountability and supervision of informal justice actors, such as the sheikhs, religious judges. 

-Prioritize funding for sustainable long-term economic empowerment programming targeting refugee survivors of SGBV.

-Increase women’s representation in the justice and the legal system at the national and decentralized level (in line with WPS1325)

-Advocate for more permissive policies on legal stay for refugees, including faster and more affordable residency approval procedures. 

-Scale-up programming that engages men and boys, particularly community and religious leaders to prevent SGBV and change harmful behaviors and attitudes. 

– More female lawyers, which results in more laws focused on gender equality

The panelists gave suggestions on improvements still needed and how to move forward.

Some of which included:

– More follow-up on the work the countries are doing. For example, the database capacities of the hotlines the countries are added to should be improved. 

– Civil society and private sector need to be partners in policymaking. A culture of self-criticism needs to be a pillar in the government’s work in the Arab region. 

– Key objective: help governments achieve the sustainable development goals. 

– Help for governments to achieve Principal SDG 5, and also 4 and 16

– Codifying the international standards for justice and equality before the law

– Reviewing laws with a gender justice approach, looking at states with strong gender justice.

– Allow sexual and reproductive laws to be on the table.

Gender justice is multidimensional. No one left behind is a key principle

COVID has been both a disruptor and accelerator across all industries but has been decelerator for women’s rights, especially in the MENA region. Consequences of the pandemic have been more difficult for the MENA region and we need to address gender justice during the recovery from this pandemic. Women’s participation in the labor force has lowered, women are more susceptible to contracting COVID, and lockdowns have increased violence against women across the board. While representation and awareness are important, action is key.

Gender-Based Violence & Covid-19: Women in the Arab Region

On Thursday, May 14th, the Arab Institute for Women hosted a webinar, “Covid-19 and Women in the Arab Region.” The talk included Mary Kawar, the director of Tiraz, and Former Jordanian Minister of Planning and International Cooperation and former director at the International Labour Organization, Stephanie Chaban, Regional Advisor on Gender equality for The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, and Lina Abirafeh Executive Director of the Arab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University. The following is a summary of one of the biggest issues discussed during the panel and Q&A: gender-based violence.

Let’s start with the hard facts: violence against women happens everywhere, all the time. In contexts of crisis, this is magnified because emergencies amplify all our pre-existing vulnerabilities – and even create NEW forms of violence. Then, the aftermath of these crises also brings violence – gender-based violence (GBV) does not end when the crisis ends. There is increased global awareness – but that isn’t necessarily leading to action. Cases remain underreported – less than 40% are actually reported. Funding remains scant. Our constant rediscovery of gbv has become exhausting – our mechanisms are weak, territorial, and only spring up in crisis. Efforts against VAW have to become a part of our daily lives, whether we are in a crisis or not. 

What’s unique about this pandemic? 

Firstly – it’s global. What’s happening to women is no longer about “other women, over there” – it’s about all women, everywhere. Women are the world’s caretakers and they risk increased exposure to infection both in their personal and professional capacities.

Domestic Violence 

“Social distancing” (physical distancing) has had a negative impact on women – particularly those already living in situations of violence. ‘Stay at home’ orders assume that home is safe – and we know it is not – although it should be! Why is it that we all face the same job loss, economic difficulties, disruption of routines, social isolation, stress, etc. and yet women have the additional risk of experiencing violence – supposedly at the hands of those who love them?! I have seen this in every single emergency I’ve worked in.

Those already in situations of intimate partner violence are more trapped than ever. Abusers deny women any social interaction with family and friends, including online interactions and therefore access to lifesaving information. New cases are emerging where they didn’t exist before. They cannot seek safety or support – if and where it exists. The police and justice systems de-prioritize GBV during the pandemic, leading to impunity. This is especially relevant in the Arab region where the majority of countries do not criminalize forms of violence against women. 

In Iraq, there are (unsurprising) alarming reports of a rise in intimate partner violence cases perpetrated across the country, especially with increased household tensions. The Anti-Domestic Violence Law in Iraq is not yet endorsed. 

In Palestine, restrictions on movements and services prevent women and girls from accessing essential services, including health, protection, security and justice. The Palestinian Working Women Society alone reported more than 510 calls to GBV hotlines in the span of less than two weeks – including suicide attempts. In terms of responding to the pandemic, Palestinian women’s voices are mostly unheard.

In Libya, women report being afraid to leave their homes – even to health facilities – unless accompanied by a male family member. Essential GBV services are already limited. 46% of respondents of a UN Women survey feared domestic violence would increase during the lockdown.

In Lebanon, online sexual harassment has increased by 180% during the lockdown. Fe-male has launched a new campaign to bring awareness to this issue. Calls to GBV hotlines have doubled in this period. Kafa reports dramatic increases in calls and incidents – listing many of the incidents in their reports. Other than physical abuse, callers report a wide range of emotional and economic abuse, threats of physical and financial abuse, constant surveillance, numerous emotional blackmail methods, and a threat of taking away their children. Female migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are even more vulnerable. Many of them are not getting paid (due to the current economic crises in Lebanon) or being left on the streets with no food or shelter. There have been multiple suicide attempts, and also increased physical and sexual violence as they remain trapped in the homes of their employers. Despite these challenges, Lebanese fear hunger more than the virus, and economic challenges will amplify violence against women for a long time to come.

Economic Burdens, Lack of Resources & Sexual Exploitation

COVID-19 has forced 743 million girls out of school in 185 countries, and it will only exacerbate gender gaps. Closed schools means missed education and missed opportunities – and the chance they never actually go back. Girls face sexual exploitation, unintended pregnancy, increased forced marriage – with parents “offloading” their girls as an additional economic burden. Even increased FGM has been documented. UNFPA estimates that this may result in 2 million additional cases of FGM, and 13 million additional cases of child marriage.

In Syria, female headed households are being further impoverished, with limited access to livelihoods and food security. The majority of those internally displaced in Syria are women. The loss of homes, property, basic services – especially health care – has magnified violence against women. Syria’s ongoing war and fragmentation impede a response to the pandemic and further stretch already scant resources and services.

For Syrian refugees in Lebanon, for instance, reporting on GBV has decreased. This does not mean that there is a decrease in violence but because of their specific lack of access and inability to report, compounded with resentment by host communities that refugees are further stretching their limited resources. This will be further challenged as resources dwindle and Lebanon continues to spiral downward. 

In Yemen, more than 48,000 women could die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth due to severe funding shortages and the possible closure of reproductive health facilities, amidst rising risks posed by COVID-19.

We’re also seeing increases in sexual exploitation and abuse because of economic insecurities, shortages, new dependencies. Sex for food, sex for rent, sex for supplies – all of these things are taking place, even in “quarantine centers”, security checkpoints, health facilities – places where women should be safe. Armed forces, police, officials all are taking advantage of their new power. In quarantine spaces or makeshift health facilities inadequate lighting, over-crowding, and the lack of sex-segregated water, sanitation and hygiene facilities can all increase the risk of violence for women. We saw this during the Ebola epidemic – and we continue to see it now. 

Here you can see UNESCWA’s tracking of stimulus packages and how each country is going about prioritizing its funding. It won’t be enough without targeted attention to women and girls.

For Arab countries and beyond, there are lessons we could learn from the Ebola response in West Africa in 2013-2015. It is undisputed that epidemics leave women and girls especially vulnerable to violence. We saw this during AND AFTER the Ebola outbreak. Women’s groups must be involved in the development and delivery of services, and must actively lead the response. All protective services for women must be classified as lifesaving and essential: hotlines, safe spaces, sexual and reproductive health services, referral pathways, etc. are necessary all the time, and even more important in crisis. 

Requirements & Demands

We will not use the language of “recommendations” because there is no need for polite language. Let’s make our demands CLEAR. 

  1. Everyone – donors, policymakers, implementers, even the private sector – needs to prioritize GBV prevention, response, and risk mitigation. Response services, case management, temporary shelter, urgent medical care, clinical medical care – everything.
  2. Women must continue to have access to sexual and reproductive health care as a continued essential service. There should be no trade off to Covid funding when it comes to keeping women safe.
  3. The Minimum Initial Service Package (MISP) for Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) in crisis settings must be implemented. 
  4. Considerations about technological access need to be made. We can learn from other countries and contexts in finding innovative ways to adapt apps etc. for online reporting – some places are using hand signals on video calls to signal distress and tell us they are unsafe. 
  5. Initiatives like cash assistance for survivors and economic empowerment necessary – as both prevention and response. 
  6. We have said this before: all of this needs funding. We need exclusive support for women and girls in all funding appeals. Appeals that are actually met, with funding sent directly to women on the frontlines.
  7. We also need political will beyond rhetoric. 
  8. We need women at all levels of leadership and decision-making for this response and beyond.

We say it in every crisis: this work is lifesaving. We do not need to prove that GBV exists and is happening and has increased – we know this from every crisis. The emergency does not end when the pandemic ends. There is no ‘normal’ to which we will be returning. Can our COVID-19 response actually be more meaningful for women than other responses have been?! I would like to believe so, but present evidence points to the contrary.