Coronavirus lockdowns have brought a surge in reports of domestic violence against women in the Middle East and warned that hard-won gains in protection for victims are at risk, women’s rights groups said.
Countries all over the world have reported increases in domestic violence as families are cooped up together at home, prompting the head of the United Nations Antonio Guterres to call for urgent government action.
But the situation in the Middle East is particularly worrying, say women’s rights activists, because governments have recently stepped up protections for those at risk.
Some fear those fragile gains are being jeopardised by restrictions on movement to curb the spread of the coronavirus that have forced women behind closed doors.
In Lebanon, calls to a government domestic violence hotline have doubled; in Tunisia, authorities say cases have increased five-fold, while in Jordan, a video of a victim tearfully describing her abuse under lockdown has gone viral.
“We’re seeing the nature of the violence become more severe and there are more death threats,” said Ghida Anani, founder and director of ABAAD, which runs shelters for women in Lebanon.
“With the cases that are turning up at the shelters right now, we’re seeing a violence more severe than before the financial crisis and even during the revolution.”
Domestic violence cases are up about 20% since the lockdown started in March, Anani told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Lebanon, where authorities have closed all but essential businesses.
The lockdown has exacerbated the difficulties faced by many households in Lebanon, where a financial crisis led to a mass uprising in October 2019, with money worries a common factor in domestic violence.
ABAAD is running Skype counselling sessions both for victims and for men with a history of violence.
The group has also teamed up with the government to distribute family aid kits containing household essentials, family support brochures and helpline contacts, Anani said.
Authorities are also playing a key role in Tunisia, where authorities say cases increased five-fold under a strict curfew that is being enforced by the army and has been extended until April 19.
The government has allocated eight shelters for victims and their children with additional facilities planned, said Tigris al-Qatiri, who heads Tunisia’s department for combating violence against women.
The Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development, a women’s group, started a solidarity and awareness campaign under the slogan “you are not alone” in an effort to reach isolated victims.
Across the region, women’s groups are desperately trying to get the message out to victims in isolation, with governments’ attention diverted by the coronavirus crisis.
Suad Abu-Dayyeh, consultant for women’s rights campaigners Equality Now, said governments in the region had “completely forgotten the whole issue of the violence against women aspect of coronavirus”.
“I imagine there’s a lot of pressure on governments, but they have to take into consideration how to work with civil society organisations to deal with violence against women.”
In Morocco, where a 2019 government survey found more than half of women experienced violence but less than 7% had reported it, advocacy group Mobilising for Rights Associates has launched an emergency response site with details of support services.
Founding partner Stephanie Willman Bordat said violence was now being driven by men in lockdown with their families after long periods away.
“Because police resources are taken up with other things like enforcing the curfew… the men think they can get away with violence with impunity,” she added.
Women’s groups have also had to intervene in Jordan, where the government’s family protection department has been overwhelmed.
But Salma Nims, secretary general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women, said the restrictions on movement meant they could offer only limited help – even as the problem grew.
“Usually the abuser is not at home, or the victim can leave the house to work or go to school but mitigation is now more difficult because they’re stuck at home,” Nims said from Amman, where a strict curfew has been in place since March 21.
The issue was thrown into relief in Jordan when a video of a woman detailing how the abuse she had long faced became worse under lockdown went viral on social media.
Nims said local groups were offering support over the phone and online, and sharing helpline numbers on social media with the message “do not hesitate,” encouraging victims to seek help in a country where two thirds of women never do. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)