For women shut inside with abusive partners or family members, “home” – where Lebanese must stay because of a government-ordered lockdown – is one of the most dangerous places to be.
On March 15, the Lebanese government ordered people to stay at home as part of its stringent measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, and over the last few weeks, domestic violence reports have risen.
“In cases where there is a predisposition for violent behaviors, the frustration of being locked at home will likely cause that violence to increase,” Ghida Anani, the director of the Abaad Resource Center for Gender Equality, told Al Arabiya English.
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Troubling signs are already emerging as calls to Abaad’s emergency helpline over the last month have shown an increase in the severity of violence women are subjected to at home, Anani said.
“These are really life-threatening situations that women are living in,” Anani said.
At least two women said they had received death threats from family members after showing flu-like symptoms consistent with coronavirus.
“Women have also been telling us they are struggling with crises of mental health issues or expressing suicidal thoughts,” Anani continued.
Increased violence against women
The majority of women – around 60 percent – who contacted Lebanese women’s protection non-governmental organization KAFA’s hotline for the month of March were doing so for the first time, reporting new incidents of physical violence or psychological abuse committed during the lockdown.
Similar patterns have been recorded worldwide over the last two months, as governments issue stay-at-home orders in response to the pandemic. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres this week called for urgent action to end a “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” against women and girls.
As more people are staying at home due to #COVID19, a surge in domestic violence has been reported across the world. @UNODC calls for urgent measures to curb escalation of gender-based violence through the course of the #coronavirus pandemic. https://t.co/imRPfmyXY4 pic.twitter.com/f2xUTW3wse— United Nations (@UN) March 31, 2020
Lebanon ranks number 145 out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap index.
“Despite a veneer of equality, Lebanon finds its foundations on a strong patriarchal system where men are leaders in the community, the workplace and the home,” said Rachel Dore-Weeks, the head of UN Women in Lebanon. “When we come to moments like this we see a rollback to traditional roles, and men often take out their stress and frustration on women.”
An estimated 58 percent of female murder victims around the world are killed by an intimate partner or family member, according to the UN.
“Under the current circumstances, the home is one of the most dangerous places to be, as [domestic abuse] survivors are obliged to spend much longer periods with their abuser,” said Rayan Majed, a researcher at KAFA.
Previously, most calls to the center came from long-time survivors of violence, or women who had previously been in contact with KAFA.
But now, more women than ever before are now reaching out to KAFA via text or social media as they try to avoid being caught by their abusers.
“When women are trapped at home with their abuser, they might not have the opportunity to call,” Majed warned.
Even if women do successfully manage to reach out for help, the implementation of Lebanon’s “general mobilization” measures have limited support organizations’ ability to provide assistance.
Nowhere to turn
While NGOs are continuing to run 24-hour hotlines and provide support over the phone or via internet communication platforms like Skype, many women who have fled their homes in search of safety are now finding themselves with nowhere to turn.
Due to the threat of coronavirus spreading quickly due to overcrowding, shelters and safe houses have suspended new admissions, and NGOs are scrambling to find alternative accommodation.
“Every day we have about two or three new cases [that need admission], but we are at full capacity,” Anani said. “There could be a life-threatening situation in our shelters if a false step is made at any point.”
Even those already living in dedicated shelters may not have access to the same range of support services they once did, as restrictions on movement mean social workers may not be able to reach them.
A nationwide closure of courthouses also prevents survivors of domestic abuse from seeking justice or protecting themselves from perpetrators, according to a report issued by UN Women Friday.
Even prior to the lockdown, obtaining justice or protections was already a challenge for women in Lebanon.
Due to the absence of a unified civil code, issues such as divorce, child custody, and property rights are governed by 15 separate sectarian courts that rule overwhelmingly in favor of men. This makes it more difficult for women to end abusive marriages, get financial support from a former husband, or protect their children.
While a domestic violence law was passed in 2014, it has been criticized for not offering adequate protection, as it has too narrow a definition of violence and is not widely implemented by authorities.
“Some women haven’t been able to extend protection orders against their abusers, and new protection orders for new cases just aren’t happening,” Dore-Weeks explained.
However, hotlines like the one by the Internal Security Forces (victims can call 1745 to report domestic violence) continue to be operational around the clock and NGOs have called on members of the public to be vigilant for signs of domestic abuse or violence.
“Even if we are distant from each other physically, we must not distance ourselves morally and ethically,” Majed said.