In many countries around the world, domestic violence has increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced people to take refuge at home.
Under various quarantine and trust orders, violence against women has increased – even in progressive democracies. France reported a 30% increase in domestic violence since the country was quarantined. Something similar happened in Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Brazil and China.
The problem remains unsolved in the Middle East and North Africa region, where violence in largely patriarchal societies is particularly acute. There, the COVID-19 pandemic intervenes along with large-scale conflicts, uprisings, and economic depression.
This situation prompted the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, to speak out against a “terrible outbreak of domestic violence,” and called for urgent government action.
When home is a dangerous place
Violence against women is not a recent scourge in the region, where the rates remain high in general evaluations of gender equality. Sexual and gender-based violence are chronic and endemic. The “sentimental couple” is the most common perpetrator of violence.
Women face a wide range of legal discrimination and patriarchal social norms in the region, where participation in public and civic spaces is low — only 25% are part of the workforce.
Now, with families forced to stay home, violence has increased in scale and severity across the region. Tunisia has reported that gender-based violence has increased fivefold since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to Tunisia's Minister for Women, Children and the Elderly, Asma Shiri Laabidi.
Overcrowded rooms and poor living conditions increase the experience of hypervigilance and supervision among large families living indoors. According to Yosra Frawes, president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women:
Many women report feeling that they are suffocating as a result of the physical proximity to their husbands who are watching their every move.
Many women report feeling suffocated as a result of physical closeness to their husbands, who monitor all their movements.
In Lebanon, where mass anti-corruption uprisings were increasing and a poor economy before the virus forced confinement, domestic violence had increased 20%.
In Morocco, a 2019 government survey found that half of women suffered from violence, but less than 7% report it. Recently, a group of women's rights organizations raised the alarm and sent a letter to the authorities with a clear message: “The home has become the most dangerous place for women.”
Physical violence is usually the final stage in a long chain that begins with verbal abuse and can also include sexual abuse. Najia Tazrout, head of Anjad, a Moroccan organization against gender violence, says:
Marital rape is a taboo and women don't talk about it. Women accept this violence because they are financially dependent on their husband who is often the only breadwinner in the family.
Rape within marriage is taboo and women don't talk about it. Women accept this violence because they are financially dependent on their husbands, who are often the only ones who bring money into the family.
Disrupted support networks
Many women are now confined indefinitely to their abusers. Due to travel restrictions or fears of exposure to the virus, women can no longer seek refuge in their parents' home. They are increasingly isolated and unable to access support networks and social services.
The few public institutions and organizations that provide support to women – many shelters, safe spaces, and women's health centers – closed or are struggling to work with meager budgets. Family planning services also closed. The courts are suspended and the Police have been largely dedicated to applying closures in the region.
Hend, a victim from Morocco who only gives his battery man, reported that the “shelters, for fear of the virus, refused to receive women.”
According to the director of ABAAD, a non-profit organization that manages women's shelters in Lebanon and functions as a resource center for gender equality:
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. There are more death threats.
With cases coming to shelters at the moment, we are seeing more severe violence than before the financial crisis and even during the revolution. There are more death threats.
Murder cases have also been reported. On April 17, a man shot and killed his mother and sister in the Beqaa Valley, according to a statement by the Lebanese Army.
An under-reported scourge
Even with several alarming reports of increased domestic violence, the true extent of violence is likely to be greater and remains unknown.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), violence against women is the most widespread, but the least reported type of human rights abuse. Fear of cultural norms and stigma are some of the barriers that discourage women from reporting attacks.
A recent survey by the International Organization for Migration found that 75% of women in Iraq are not comfortable reporting the violence to the Police, for fear of further abuse and cultural stigma.
Lack of legal protection against domestic violence and access to financial resources also prevent women from reporting.
In Kuwait, there are no laws criminalizing domestic and sexual violence against women. In Iraq, a husband has the right to “punish” his wife, and parents are empowered to discipline their children “within the limits prescribed by law or custom.”
COVID-19: Predominantly male response ignores women's rights
Governments have imposed quarantines without planning not to take sufficient measures to face gender-based violence caused by confinement.
As domestic violence increases during emergencies – especially when couples spend long periods together under the same roof – women's rights were simply not part of the answer.
Suad Abu-Dayyeh of Equality Now concludes that the governments of the region have “completely forgotten the whole issue of the coronavirus aspect of violence against women.” Lack of preparedness and delays in addressing violence means that irreparable damage has occurred that could have been prevented.
The gender-divided response to the pandemic has been framed as a “war effort” in the region — replicating patriarchal gender dynamics.
While women have been mobilized mainly to the front line as health personnel, since they make up 70% of health personnel, according to the WHO, they are also the main people in charge.
According to the International Labor Organization, women perform 76% of total hours of unpaid care – more than triple that of men.
Women have been confined to a leading role and lagged behind greater executive decisions. They are underrepresented in the political response. Decision makers in the region are overwhelmingly male, and women's political representation is at the lowest levels in the world.
Male leaders have envisioned a strategic response to the pandemic in terms of budgets and plans that do not prioritize women's issues. The media also repeat this power imbalance. Men predominantly lead public discussions of COVID-19 and act as the main sources of information.
The pandemic has once again exposed the harsh situation of women's rights in the region and exacerbated the silent but deadly pandemic of domestic violence.