“If I hear your voice, I will hit you again.”
“You choose how you want to get beaten, with a stick or with a hose.”
These words are how Amina, a victim of domestic violence, recalls the time she used to live with her family before she got married. When she was a child, her father used to beat her for the grades she failed at school, sometimes with a piece of hose that would disintegrate as it hit her.
“Although my hands were sore and swollen and my fingers were broken, my father would force me to hold a pen and continue studying,” Amina said.
Eventually, marriage was her way out of domestic violence.
But Omneya, another victim of domestic violence, lives with her abuser in the same house. She has had to find ways of avoiding violence.
“I work more than 14 hours a day without a day off. I’m not at home most of the day, which is my way to avoid abuse,” Omneya said. “My sister is forbidden to work as she is still in high school, although I started working when I was in preparatory school. The violence she experiences is worse.”
Omneya explained that her sister has no solution to escape from domestic violence. She has to stay at home most of the day, making the violence towards her stronger and taking different forms, including threats and verbal and physical abuse.
While some victims may find in long working hours a means to avoid domestic violence, many women worldwide have been more like Omneya’s sister over the past year during the Covid-19 pandemic that has in many cases forced them to remain at home.
UN Women, the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, says that working from home increased the levels of stress and anxiety among many family members. Isolation and confinement may trigger tensions leading to domestic violence. As a result, the perpetrators of abuse extended their power.
The disturbances that accompanied the pandemic also limited access to services, and the need to stay at home in order to avoid Covid-19 together with the weak socioeconomic status of many women negatively impacted women and children who are most prone to domestic violence.
Activities coordinator at the Coptic Evangelical Organisation for Social Services (CEOSS) in Cairo Tony Alfred told Al-Ahram Weekly about his experience of helping women and children facing domestic violence over recent months.
“The coronavirus pandemic caused a noticeable increase in the percentage of women coming for help. In addition, the state of fear of the virus produced by the media also negatively impacted their condition,” he said.
According to the UN, during the coronavirus outbreak calls to helplines by those facing violence reached five times their usual level in some countries. It was for this reason that domestic violence was dubbed “the shadow pandemic” by many.
Vulnerable groups like women with disabilities were at greater risk of violence as the curfews and other related restrictions associated with Covid-19 made them more likely to face violence at home.
Unfortunately, very often the health services were busy containing the pandemic itself, and services such as counseling, legal advice, and sexual health and other medical assistance were relatively unavailable to victims isolated from their social-support networks.
Consequently, both the health and well-being of domestic-violence survivors hugely deteriorated.
DURING THE PANDEMIC: Many commentators have highlighted explosive episodes of domestic violence during the pandemic that may have been more dangerous than the pandemic itself.
But even before the pandemic started, the victims of domestic violence were very often isolated from friends, family, and any sources of support. Whereas the pandemic provided a chance for the perpetrators of violence to exercise their power, domestic violence has always been there.
Yasmine, a victim of domestic violence, describes her experience with domestic violence as a “lifestyle”. She said that it wasn’t just a single incident that she encountered, but happened on a regular basis.
Domestic violence or domestic abuse occurs when a family member exercises physical, emotional, sexual, economic or psychological abuse or threats against another. Any behaviour that frightens, intimidates, manipulates, humiliates, blames, or injures another family member is considered to be domestic violence.
“In general, I was subjected to domestic violence in the form of beating and harassment. During the lockdown, it was normal, but it always happens,” said Heba, another victim of domestic violence.
Domestic violence is usually a pattern of related incidents that escalate in frequency and severity over time. In extreme cases, it can lead to physical injuries or even death.
Domestic violence can affect both sexes and individuals from all social classes and backgrounds. Nevertheless, women experience it more than men. The victims are primarily wives and daughters, but they may also include extended family members and relatives, usually from the same household as the perpetrator.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Eastern Mediterranean region is in second place worldwide for cases of domestic violence against women, reaching 37 per cent of total global cases.
The statistics also show an increase in violence against women in Latin America and the Caribbean region. Calls to helplines increased by 53 per cent in Mexico during the first quarter of 2020.
Eighteen US and international studies have compared the number of incidents before the pandemic started in March 2020 and right afterwards, according to the US TV channel CNN. According to a US National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice (NCCCJ) report, there was an increase of 8.1 per cent in domestic violence incidents in the US over this period.
Between March and April 2020, the National Network of Refuges in the US also reported an increase of 77 per cent in domestic violence, compared to the same time in 2019.
IN EGYPT: Based on National Council for Women (NCW) statistics, around eight million Egyptian women are at risk of domestic violence each year, and up to 86 per cent of wives may face spousal abuse.
Four out of every five married men have directed a form of psychological violence against their wives. Additionally, almost half of young women have reported physical violence against them by either their brothers or fathers.
As a result, plenty of activists and women’s rights advocates are working towards eliminating such violence against women. “Civil-society efforts to stop [domestic violence] need to be accompanied by deterrence laws and helplines,” Alfred said.
Groups supporting women’s rights point to the complexity of litigation procedures that may be in favour of the perpetrator of violence. In August last year, after a video went viral on social media showing an abused woman facing detention, the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR), a NGO, illustrated such situations.
It said that should a husband enter a counter-plea against his wife in cases of suspected domestic violence, this could result in the woman’s detention as part of the litigation procedures. Many women thus decide not to complain of their exposure to violence in the first place, it said.
Even if women attempt to gain legal rights from their abusive husbands, they may end up not continuing with the procedures and then living in a worse environment with increased risks of violence.
Nihad Abul-Qumsan, the head of the ECWR, has called for the procedures to be amended in order to help women seek help from the police. She said that the detention of the wife should be cancelled, and the complaint made by her should be presented directly to the prosecution. Investigations should be done in hospital in cases of physical injuries.
She also wants to see the speedy investigation of women who withdraw their reports under pressure. The courts should not hesitate to imprison the abuser, she said. The two parties should be aware of all the litigation procedures to help achieve legal and social justice.
Abul-Qumsan wants to see the ministry of the interior review its procedures, set up units for violence against women, and circulate data, all of which will have a vital role to play in dealing with violence against women in Egypt.
In January this year, member of parliament’s Media and Culture Committee Amal Salama declared that she had prepared amendments to toughen penalties against those found guilty of domestic violence, as the penal code currently lacks proper penalties, she said.
Article 242 of the relevant law states that “if the beating or wounding does not reach the degree mentioned in the two previous articles, the perpetrator shall be punished with imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year or a fine.”
Salama’s amendments to articles 242 and 243 of the penal code states that abusive husbands will face three to five years in prison. She said that she had received the signatures of many MPs in support of them. Egypt was committed to preventing all forms of violence against women, especially domestic violence, she added.
She explained to the daily Al-Ahram that a child who sees his mother insulted or beaten will very likely grow up unable to contribute to his country. She also described the laws of other countries regarding domestic violence.
Before 1993, the UK and US were the only two countries that had passed special legislation to combat domestic violence. Following their example, in 2000 Bangladesh issued a law combating violence against women and children. In 2004, the Philippines issued a similar law, and in 2008 Guatemala issued a law to combat femicide and other forms of violence against women.
The Arab countries have followed the same path and issued domestic violence laws. Saudi Arabia has introduced penalties of up to one year in prison and a fine of up to 50,000 riyals ($13,000) to protect women against violence. Article 9 of the relevant law of the UAE says that “without prejudice to any more severe penalty stipulated in any other law, whoever commits any act of domestic violence is punishable by imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months and a fine of not more than 5,000 dirhams [$1,300].”
In Bahrain, the provisions of Article 351 of the country’s penal code state that “an individual shall be punished by imprisonment for a period not exceeding three months, or by a fine not exceeding 20 dinars ($50), for harassing a female in a way that offends her modesty by word or deed in public.” In Kuwait, the law punishes domestic violence with imprisonment for six months and a fine ranging from 100 ($300) to 1,000 dinars.
In Tunisia, the country’s parliament approved a law criminalising all forms of violence against women in 2017. The penalties include imprisonment for up to 20 years for some cases of physical violence.
In Algeria, the parliament has approved an amendment that toughens the penalty against men who engage in physical violence against women, saying that “anyone who intentionally causes a wound to or hits the wife shall be punished with imprisonment for up to 20 years, depending on the severity of the injury. In the event of death, the penalty is life imprisonment.”
Overall, 127 countries around the world have issued laws criminalising violence against women over the past 25 years.
SURVIVOR SUPPORT: Salama said that she had received many complaints from women exposed to domestic violence, showing that it has become a widespread issue that will result in problems for generations to come if not dealt with.
“This is the dark side of my father. On the other side, he is all tenderness, affection, and support. I’m confused. If he really loves me, why does he beat me so violently,” Amina asked. “I couldn’t complain, so I told no one.”
The kind of confusion victims of domestic violence often face can require medical attention and social support. The WHO advises healthcare facilities to make their services available to survivors of domestic violence, including psychosocial support, counselling services, protection services, hotlines, and shelters.
Moreover, humanitarian response organisations have to find ways to offer help to vulnerable and isolated women. Yasmine added that her sister had encountered physical violence multiple times. They had tried to find professional help, but they had found no answer, she said.
Likewise, Omneya tried to contact an outside institution, but was shocked by the complicated procedures she would need to go through before receiving help, which eventually led her to give up, stay silent, and try to survive with minimal losses.
While mental and psychological treatment is still not accessible for many, including victims of domestic violence, several organisations have made their services available to Egyptian women subjected to violence.
The Egyptian Red Crescent Psychosocial Support Unit (PSSU) is available through its website (www.egyptianrc.org) or telephone number (02 23492106), so women can receive proper psychological treatment. The Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance is contactable (02-02373 165 85/ 371 545 62), so women can seek legal advice related to their specific situation. The Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women is contactable (0114 061 7926), so women can receive economic, educational, and social support.
The WHO recommends victims of domestic violence to reach out to a family member or trusted friend who can be a safe resort in times of distress or the unavailability of outside help. A particular relative, neighbour, or colleague should stay updated on all new circumstances in case a shelter is needed.
Similarly, when deciding to file a legal case, it is essential to bring identification documents, money, a telephone, clothes and medicines. Finding a safe shelter and coming up with an emergency contact list is the first step to consider.
Alfred said that there was evidence that the numbers of women seeking help are much lower than they were as a result of the efforts made. “We carry out seminars and workshops for women, men, and children with the participation of clergymen and human-rights trainers to support families to address this phenomenon,” he said.
One of the unexpected impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic is that it shed light on social issues like domestic violence. Its frequency increased due to the global restrictions associated with the pandemic, but domestic violence is deeply rooted and requires more attention than it gets.
For anyone looking for ways to help, Alfred gave a straightforward guide to essential steps to prevent domestic violence. “Acknowledge the problem, confront it, replace stubbornness with love, take the initiative, give attention, and report it to the authorities,” he said.
The women preferred not to use their real names.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly