Pandemic Leads to Rise in Violence Against Women in Arab Societies, UN Study Finds
Lockdowns make things worse, but roots of problem attributed to cultural, legal and social factors
Arab women have been disproportionately affected by measures to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus and domestic violence has increased in the Arab region, according to a report published by the UN Women organization.
UN Women’s Regional Office for the Arab States (ROAS) conducted an online survey in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia and Yemen, focusing on gender roles, attitudes and practices related to violence against females.
A total of 16,462 female and male participants took part in the study, which was published in August 2020.
Amani El-Tawil, a lawyer and director of the Women’s Program at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, previously worked as a consultant for the UN in Sudan. She told The Media Line the pandemic was placing additional stress on families in Egypt, leading to an increase in violence against women.
“All of the family members face huge pressures, due mainly to being locked together in the same place for long periods of time, in addition to the stress coming from converting education to online learning, especially for kids, who need social activities in addition to schooling,” El-Tawil said.
This, she said, leads to constant friction among family members, which increases the burden on women. “This places them in an agitated and disturbed psychological state, which affects women’s relations with their partners.”
In these stressful circumstances, violence against females has increased, which explains the jump in the divorce rate during the pandemic, she said.
El-Tawil added that civil society organizations were working hard to support families, but the pandemic has had a huge negative impact as far as family cohesion and violence against women are concerned.
According to the study, “Rapid Assessment: The Effects of COVID-19 on Violence Against Women and Gendered Social Norms,” nearly half of the respondents from all nine countries surveyed agreed that women were facing an increased risk of violence from their husbands.
Fewer than 40% of women who experienced violence seek help of any kind or report a crime, according to the study. Nearly one in three participants (both men and women) believe that women must endure violence during the COVID-19 pandemic to maintain family cohesion.
Bushra al-Obaidi, a legal expert and a member of a women’s advisory group to UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ representative in Iraq, told The Media Line the restrictions on freedom of movement and work resulting from the coronavirus were affecting people’s behavior.
“Consequently, due to the psychological and economic pressure that accompanied the pandemic, and affected family members, usual attitudes that were being overcome before coronavirus pandemic are triggering violence between family members,” Obaidi said.
That anger usually has greater consequences for the weaker party, i.e., women and children, she pointed out. Thus wives and children became targets for men to express their anger against.
“The jump in violence against women revealed the fragility of laws and procedures, and the weak political will to solve the issue of domestic violence and violence against women,” Obaidi said. “Unfortunately, the laws encourage violence, specifically by men against women.”
Domestic violence can come from either direction, but it is usually from the man, Obaidi noted. However, females’ violence against males is prosecuted with full force, “while a man’s violence receives a lighter penalty if he is punished at all.”
The global pandemic has also revealed a new face of violence, political violence, she said, given the measures taken by the state and the law enforcement authorities to implement procedures and sanctions.
“There have been discriminatory measures against women. This distinction is very ugly, and must be highlighted globally,” Obaidi said.
She acknowledged that the text of the laws, in general, do not discriminate by gender, as penal codes do not distinguish between females and males when it comes to murder and assault.
“The punishment for premeditated murder is life imprisonment, and the penalty for premeditated murder in aggravated circumstances is the death penalty. Also, the penalty for beating a victim to death is more than 10 years. However, upon implementation [in cases of domestic violence], women receive severe punishment, while men receive reduced punishment to the point that they get away with it,” Obaidi clarified.
The violence, if not deterred, increases and lead to death, Obaidi continued.
In Iraq, only those directly affected by violence can file complaints, she said.
“For example, I cannot file a complaint if I hear or witness violence against my neighbors, as the affected person must submit a complaint. And in our tribal society, which relies on customs and traditions, women rarely file complaints. Thus their rights are lost,” Obaidi said.
Diana Moukalled, a leading Lebanese writer and media person, and part of the feminist movement, told The Media Line that her country, like the rest of the world, has seen increased violence against women because of the coronavirus lockdowns.
“Women were present with their abusers in homes amid economic hardship, which exacerbates a problem” also made worse by the lack of adequate protection mechanisms, she said.
Nevertheless, Moukalled explained that the biggest factors behind the phenomenon are the social aspect and male culture, as well as men’s position in society, which is not parallel with that of women.
“The legal system marginalizes women and places them on a lower level in terms of rights,” she said. “In Lebanon, we have religious and sectarian status laws, in addition to personal status laws, according to which the marginal position of women is perpetuated.”
Moukalled criticized the fact that Lebanon, like many Arab countries, still allows underage marriage and polygamy for some sects.
“We have laws whose texts justify violence, and sometimes we tolerate beatings and murder, and all personal status laws in Lebanon consider women to be ‘hysterical.’ And so, men have the power in the family system,” she said.
Men decide whether women can work and whether they can leave the house, Moukalled explained. “There are numerous rulings from the [various sects’] personal status courts requiring women to obey their husbands, and this approach, enshrined in laws and social legislation, forces women to be in a vulnerable position.”
In rural areas far from cities, where people are less educated, the legal system forces women to marry early, stay at home, leave the labor market and not complete their education, she highlighted.
“When a woman is placed in this situation, her position in the family is weakened, especially when she does not have her own income. If she does not have a job, she has to accept violence, because she has no other choice,” Moukalled said.
Violence against women is fostered by social acceptance and by a legal culture that discriminates against females, she added.
“If our laws and the social approach are not modified, the level of violence against women will remain high,” Moukalled affirmed.
Civil society and the women’s movement have been raising their voices, rejecting the inequalities, but this has not been enough, she indicated.
“We need to change a lot of laws to help women and to reduce violence, harm and discrimination against them,” Moukalled said.