After Beirut blast, displaced women left increasingly vulnerable amid crisis

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In the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, a recession, political instability, and lingering effects from the Aug. 4 Beirut port explosion, women and girls in Lebanon are left increasingly vulnerable.

Roughly half of the 300,000 people displaced in by the port explosion are women and girls who are more susceptible to gender-based violence than their displaced male counterparts, according to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

As Lebanon’s economic problems deepen, domestic abuse has been on the rise; a coronavirus lockdown saw a further spike in reported abuse cases.

Now, the blast that destroyed large swaths of the Lebanese capital has exacerbated women’s feelings of insecurity and lack of safety, even within their own neighborhoods.

A growing body of evidence suggests that Lebanon’s current situation makes women and girls feel insecure with their current living conditions this group is now more vulnerable to sexual violence, exploitation, and abuse.

They require access to sexual and reproductive health services, protection, psychosocial support, menstrual hygiene, and water and sanitation.

Christiane Jammal lives in Mar Mikhael, one of Beirut’s oldest neighborhoods situated near the port. The explosion destroyed her home, and now, Jammal, still struggling with the trauma, has not yet been able to return home as construction is ongoing.

“August 4th changed my life dramatically and forever,” Jammal told Al Arabiya English.

An aerial view taken on August 7, 2020, shows a partial view of the port of Beirut and the crater caused by the colossal explosion. (AFP)
An aerial view taken on August 7, 2020, shows a partial view of the port of Beirut and the crater caused by the colossal explosion. (AFP)

Sama, a 5-year-old girl, was at home with her family at the time of the blast when its impact pushed them backward and shattered their windows. Her mother’s first instinct was to cover her. Still, the glass shards further damaged an already injured eye, leaving Sama permanently blind in one eye.

When Sama’s story went viral on social media, a fundraiser was set up in her name. Thankfully, generous donations have been made to help Sama undergo treatment and eye surgery.

An assessment carried out by UNFPA Lebanon to measure the Beirut blast’s impact among women found that participants have all been affected by the blast, with the psychological effects the most obvious.

Economic stress and domestic violence

Women and girls in Lebanon have been significantly affected by job cuts that are becoming more frequent as Lebanon continues its steady decline and are at increased risk of societal and domestic violence.

A UN study showed that women's unemployment rate increased from 14.3 percent before the crisis to 26 percent by September 2020, translating to a 63 percent increase in women's unemployment rate compared to the 2018-2019 reporting period.

According to a report by Labour Force and Household Living Conditions Surve, 50 percent of the working-age population participated in the labor force 2018-2019, in which only 29.3 percent were women of working age.

Although analyses of current financial statistics in relation to reported domestic violence incidents have yet to be completed, many researchers have previously examined various economic indicators that provide a framework for understanding how economic stress may contribute to domestic violence.

“Economic and social insecurity increases societal violence and violence against women,” Rachel Dore-Weeks, UN Women Lebanon’s Head of Office, told Al Arabiya English, highlighting that this is a global trend that has now, unfortunately, reached Lebanon.

Women carry national flags during ongoing anti-government protests near the Ministry of Education and Higher Education in Beirut, Lebanon November 7, 2019. (File photo: Reuters)
Women carry national flags during ongoing anti-government protests near the Ministry of Education and Higher Education in Beirut, Lebanon November 7, 2019. (File photo: Reuters)

Dore-Weeks explained that this is because tension, frustration, and a sense of powerlessness – all of which are associated with the crisis’s impact – often manifest in increased domestic violence incidents.

“We must ensure that those at risk and surviving violence have the support structures they need to get help and that in our response to the crisis, we are rebuilding Lebanon in ways that promote inclusion and social justice.’ Dore-Weeks added.

Coupled with an interplay of economic precocity and domestic violence, the pandemic’s financial fallout presents perhaps one of the most significant risks in terms of increasing abuse.

“Rates of domestic violence in the country have really increased as the economic situation deteriorated and as the lockdown trapped many women at home with their abusive family members,” Aya Majzoub, Lebanon and Bahrain Researcher at Human Rights Watch told Al Arabiya English.

In many ways, Lebanon’s economic crisis has thrown into sharp focus numerous issues surrounding protecting people facing domestic abuse that predated the pandemic.

“These rates should be a wake-up call to the authorities that amending Lebanon’s laws to protect survivors of domestic violence and allow women to end abusive marriages is a priority,” Majzoub told Al Arabiya English.

Read more:

Coronavirus: Domestic violence grows under Lebanon’s lockdown

Coronavirus: Refugee women face heightened risk of violence, UNHCR says

Period poverty in Lebanon rising amid unprecedented economic crisis

Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report highlighting Lebanese authorities’ failure to keep their international legal obligations to protect women and girls from violence and end discrimination against them.

According to the HRW, the Lebanese domestic violence law defines domestic violence narrowly and fails to specifically criminalize marital rape.

“Members of parliament have introduced multiple draft laws since 2017 on sexual harassment, but parliament has yet to take any action. A lack of coordination in the government’s response to sex trafficking continues to put women and girls – mostly Syrians living in Lebanon – at risk,” stated HRW.

In response, they called on the Lebanese government to take immediate and concrete measures to remedy the grave situation affecting women’s lives.

As a new national lockdown comes into force in Lebanon, fears over increasing domestic abuse rates are growing.

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