UN Women recently issued a report on the impact of Covid-19 on the increasing percentage of violence, whether domestic or public, against women.
Titled “Impact of Covid-19 on violence against women and Girls in Arab states through the lens of women civil society organisations,” the report covers 15 countries in the Arab region, among them Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Yemen, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia.
UN Women is the UN entity promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women.
Covid-19 has radically changed the lives of young girls and women in most Arab countries due to quarantines, curfews and lockdowns since many were obliged to stop working, consequently losing their income.
Due to quarantines, women became trapped with their partners at home where 37 per cent of them in the Eastern Mediterranean region were domestically abused, the report said. The virus health concerns, along with worries due to the lack of money and anxiety, have created tension that in many cases reached boiling point.
According to the UN Women report, the Covid-19 circumstances have put tremendous pressure on women burdened with extra responsibilities such as taking care of the children and elderly family members in addition to household duties that have put women under severe pressure, causing them psychological distress.
The report revealed that during quarantine women were also exposed to online violence, citing the existence of dark humour on social media regarding gender roles.
The report is based on findings of a rapid assessment that the UN Women Regional Office for the Arab States (ROAS) conducted on women civil society organisations and their constituencies in the region from 6-30 May, about the impact of the pandemic on Arab women. The assessment was carried out at a time when most Arab countries were implementing various measures to limit the spread of the virus such as curfews and lockdowns. It showed that the main causes for the increasing violence against females were due to financial hardship, quarantines and the discontinuation of services or support systems for women. At the same time women were unable to escape from their abusers or seek the support of their families.
These conditions have also affected women refugees, displacing them in conflict zones. The UN report noted that women refugees were considered at more risk of violence by partners, community members or in camp settings due to health issues, food insecurity and being unable to go back to their countries because of travel restrictions and border closures. Women refugees suffered from the lack of access to information as they were left without legal documentation and the impossibility of acquiring or renewing residency permits.
A Palestinian Civil Society Organisation (CSO) from Gaza stated, “The closure of borders and the inability of women refugees to travel or return to their relatives had a great impact on their psychological and economic situation. Women refugees have lost their work thus increased violence by the husband and the husband’s family. In the absence of anyone to turn to, women refugees were unable to escape these forms of different violence.”
In Egypt, women community service organisations (CSOs) working with female migrant workers observed an increase in racist violence targeting this sector in the country. Many of them, according to women CSOs, were dismissed by their employers mostly without their identity documents that would enable them to return to their home. Women migrant workers were left without being provided with their basic needs of assistance and protection. Also, women with disabilities were more likely to experience violence due to their limited access to health services as the special care centres for them were closed down. Transportation was limited, as were caregivers. They were stigmatised as being a burden on the household during the Covid-19 crisis.
Meanwhile, 39 per cent of women in need of legal services in Arab countries were affected by the pandemic as the courts were closed down, thus temporarily suspending legal cases filed by women such as alimony and custody. Furthermore, and due to the pandemic, women suffered the lack of access to lawyers needed for consultations in emergency matters.
The pandemic has also affected the social services granted to women, such as shelters and hotlines for women survivors, by 15 per cent and 29 per cent respectively. The report noted that maintaining social distances at the shelters was very difficult due to the scarcity of space availability. Also, testing for the virus was expensive and often not affordable for shelters, while staff were not always trained on the means of protection from the virus nor in possession of sufficient personal protection equipment.
In response, 71 per cent of women organisations have switched to providing remote support for women and 47 per cent have re-allocated their budget to respond to the pandemic for the sake of women. According to responses from women’s organisations, the pandemic represents a threat to them.
Women CSOs said the increased workload is directly connected to higher numbers in cases of Violence Against Women (VAW) and major threats to gender equality in general. Meanwhile, their staff are working from home and often unable to work as much due to their increased duty of care at home.
Eighty-four per cent of the women CSOs participating in the survey said the pandemic had affected them either negatively or very negatively. CSOs stated the increase in workload was directly connected to higher numbers in the case of VAW and was a major threat to gender equality in general.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.