Ecofeminism & the Arab Region – How Climate Change & Conflict Impact Women and Communities

In the Arab world (and most of the globe for that matter) gender inequality, climate change, and conflict are intertwined. On the one hand, the consequences of climate change lead to conflict, social unrest, and political upheaval, leading to the displacement of women. Conflict and unrest hurdles women into spaces of even less resources and more major obstacles towards coping, healing, and survival. On the other hand, conflict in the Arab world exacerbates the effects of climate change, jeopardizing environmental resources such as access to land, agriculture, water, and food security. Amidst heightened environmental stressors and threats, violence towards women is regularly used to exert or reinforce control over natural resources. 

Women are extorted for sex in exchange for land ownership, in areas of little access to water women face harassment and assault while en route to collect supplies, men gaining power from illegal mining and poaching operations assault and exploit women, and the list goes on and on. 

THE POWER OF LAND & PATRIARCHY

Women’s ability to maintain personal and food security and a decent livelihood is hindered by the environmental pressure and impact of conflict. Discriminatory laws on land ownership, property, and inheritance increase the difficulties that women face in accessing resources. Although many women play an active role in use, distribution, and management of property, male control and ownership is still enforced. Women’s lack of decision-making capacity limits their ability to adapt to and reduce the impact of climate change, especially in rural areas.

Furthermore, increasing drought, irregular rainfall patterns, and the degradation of agricultural land have led to migration from rural to urban areas. Men are usually the ones who migrate, while women are left to run households amidst hazardous environmental and security threats.

While women suffer heavily from the consequences of climate change, which are often exacerbated by conflict, they are rarely able to benefit from the needed adaptation measures, such as increased access to technology, credit, and assets. Climate change and conflict affect women’s access to resources and livelihood, including land access, agricultural activities, food security, and water access. Lack of access to land in settings of conflict and natural disaster make women more likely to fall into poverty. 

In the Arab region, women are estimated to own less than 5 percent of assets, while they head 40 percent of households in conflict settings.

Land is the basis for sustainable food production and for guaranteeing adequate food intake for all household members—data show that children are better nourished when women can decide what to feed them. Land is necessary to secure access to agricultural crops, metals, and minerals. Land ownership can ensure that women obtain credits and loans, and ways to transform raw material into marketable products.

The Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) states that, in the region, Bahrain and Kuwait rank highest in the indicator pertaining to having laws that ensure the same rights to own, use, and control land for men and women. Sudan ranks the lowest in the SIGI indicator, for it does not have any laws guaranteeing land rights to women. The other Arab countries score a 0.5 in the SIGI index—they all have laws guaranteeing the same rights to own, use, and control for men and women, but the customary, traditional, and religious norms that discriminate against women often overrule these laws.

Furthermore, conflicts and natural disaster can impede women’s employment in the agricultural sector. 

FOOD SECURITY & AGRICULTURE

In the Middle East, women make up about 50 percent of the agricultural labor force. The income gap between men and women is significant in the Arab region and reaches 21 per cent in countries like Lebanon. Closing the gender gap in agriculture would increase food production and reduce the number of people living in hunger worldwide by 100-150 million.

Reduced income and employment opportunities in agriculture sometimes increase rural-to-urban migration in places like Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, and Tunisia. Conflict and natural disaster have decreased women’s participation in agriculture in places like Palestine, Syria, and Yemen. In Palestine, female employment in agriculture decreased from 31.9 per cent in 1999 to 21.4 per cent in 2010. In Syria, the percentage of women in agriculture decreased from 50.2 per cent in 1999 to 20.2 per cent in 2011. Yemen experienced the largest decrease in female employment in agriculture, falling from 87.8 per cent in 1999 to only 28 per cent in 2010.

Women are also responsible for small livestock production, and they make up around two thirds of the world’s livestock keepers. Women take care of poultry and dairy animals, selling eggs and producing dairy products. In settings of conflict and natural disaster, women bear the consequences of losses and damages, as those income-generating activities are compromised. High rates of killings, theft, or diseases take place among livestock in times of resource scarcity due to conflict and natural disaster.

In the event of losses of crops and livestock, women and families’ wellbeing is compromised, and poverty and malnourishment increases. In times of scarcity, women also tend to resort to forest products such as fruits, nuts, or mushrooms in search of food security.

Climate change contributes to widening gender gaps with respect to livestock, fertilizers, equipment, human resources, education, and other institutional resources. Farms run by households headed by females are particularly affected by climate change because of their small size and the limited number of family members who are available to work on the farm. Such households tend to be very poor, as the large amount of unpaid work undertaken by women reduces the time that could be allocated for paid activities.

Conflicts and natural disasters also affect the four elements of food security: availability, stability, utilization, and access to food products. Food availability refers to the domestic production or purchase of sufficient food products to meet nutrition requirements. Food stability refers to the permanent access to adequate food and other livelihood assets. In times of conflict and natural disaster, data show that women reduce their food intake to feed other family members, which can have serious consequences for their health.

Food stability refers to how food products are used and treated in the process of food preparation. Because women are usually responsible for food utilization, they play a vital role in ensuring adequate food preparation to avoid illnesses. Diseases can result from pollution, which tends to be a problem in conflict settings, or from climate disasters such as floods, which can cause malaria or cholera. Food access refers to the ability to produce and sell food products and to use them for self-nutrition purposes. Gender imbalances and hierarchies can hinder women’s access to food.

In conflict-stricken countries in the Arab region, food security rates are low. As of 2015, Syria, Yemen, and Sudan registered the lowest scores on the Global Food Security Index (GFSI), at 40.6 per cent, 37.3 per cent, and 36.5 per cent, respectively. More stable countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates scored 72.8 per cent and 75.6 per cent respectively in 2015.

Women’s health is more likely to suffer due to conflict or climate change. Illnesses such as malnutrition, anemia, and malaria particularly affect women, especially if pregnant or breastfeeding. In Yemen, Sudan, and Iraq, 36 per cent, 34 per cent, and 31 percent of women suffer from anemia, respectively.

WATER

Another serious issue impacting women’s health and livelihood in the Arab region is clean water access. In 2014, 18 Arab countries had a rate of average water availability lower than 1,000 cubic meters per capita per year, which represents the water poverty line. 13 out of 18 of those countries had a rate of water availability per capita per year lower than 500 cubic meters, which represents the severe water scarcity line established by the World Health Organization.

In settings of conflict and climate disasters, access to and availability of water is compromised, as damage is often inflicted upon water resources and infrastructure. Conflicts, including threats posed by fighting and landmines, hinder the operation and maintenance of water facilities.

Throughout 2012-2013, 118 water and sanitation facilities were destroyed in Palestine. In Palestine, around 200,000 rural dwellers in the West Bank are not connected to a water network due to conflict as well as limited rainfall and drought—water scarcity causes heightened water prices, hinders agricultural activities, and endangers livelihoods. Increases in population density due to conflict and climate pressures strain the already compromised water resources, especially in Gaza, Sudan, and Yemen.

Women, who are often responsible for water collection, are disproportionately affected by the impact of conflict and climate events on access to water, especially in rural areas. Amidst water scarcity, women and girls must travel long distances to collect water and are subject to sexual violence and other threats to their safety. The lack of safe and private sanitation facilities exposes women to violence. This is especially true for refugee women in Iraq and Palestine whose only access to sanitation is restricted to camps where water shortages are common.

Women are often placed in dangerous situations when access to water is unavailable and their land rights are compromised—women’s ability to care for their families is threatened by reduced agriculture and livestock production due to lack of access to water. Rural, poor women who depend on shared water resources can often struggle to secure water for their families, increasing exposure to diseases. For instance, cholera and diarrhea outbreaks in Iraq mainly affect women and girls.

Women are at the intersection between climate change and conflict, the impacts of which are mutually reinforced. They are the prime managers of natural resources during war and natural disaster, and they register better performance in the management and use of natural resources compared to men. However, women have limited participation in policymaking even though they are at the forefront in the fight against poverty and ensuring standards for food security. Women must be active participants in environmental policymaking to guarantee better management of resources in conflict settings and to promote peace and stability in the Arab region.

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.

Where Women Stand in Lebanon – Post Explosion & In an Ongoing Pandemic

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.