The “Shadow Pandemic” and its implications for the MENA-region: Domestic violence on the rise

Silently, a “Shadow pandemic” has begun amidst the COVID-19 crisis: Worldwide, a rise in domestic violence has been recorded since the outbreak of COVID-19. Women in the MENA-region find themselves especially at risk.

Even before COVID-19, the Eastern Mediterranean Region had the second highest prevalence of gender-based violence (GBV) worldwide, largely due to societal structures upholding gender inequalities and intensified by political crises, socioeconomic instability, and humanitarian emergencies. Emergencies of any kind reinforce pre-existing gender inequalities and increase the risk of domestic violence, with women living in conflict-ridden areas, refugees or displaced persons especially endangered. There are few concrete numbers on the increase of GBV in the region since the outbreak of the pandemic, as many Arab countries do not effectively document domestic violence rates and it is a crime that often goes unreported. Available data indicate a steep increase: Already in April, Tunisia reported a fivefold increase of GBV since March 2019, Lebanon reported that calls to helplines have doubled and domestic violence risen by 20%.

COVID-19 exacerbates domestic violence

Since the start of the pandemic, about 2.73 billion women around the world have been affected by stay-at-home orders, including many women in MENA countries, where living space is often crammed and men (re-)assume the role as head of the household. Being forced to stay at home with an abusive partner strongly heightens the risk for GBV, isolation by the abuser can render it impossible for women to seek help or a refuge outside of home. This situation may be even worse in zones of conflict and humanitarian emergencies, such as in Libya, Syria and Yemen. Moreover, most information on domestic violence is spread online and via cell phone messaging – in the MENA-region, almost half of the 84 million female population is neither connected to the internet, nor do they have access to a mobile phone. The region also has high illiteracy rates among women, further hindering their access to information.

The help system in the MENA-region is under pressure, too. Domestic violence shelters could face difficulties in terms of overcrowding and closures owing to fear of infection. Overburdened health-care facilities might choose to favor pandemic-related health issues or not document abuse for fear of infection with the virus. NGOs and aid workers may also shift their focus accordingly. As result, GBV survivors might not receive the necessary support and funding may be redirected from women’s projects to COVID-19 aid.

COVID-19 also negatively impacts women’s access to protective measures and accountability. The police and justice systems may de-prioritize GBV during the pandemic, leading to impunity. In many countries, courts closed during the pandemic, and protective orders were not issued, so there was no legal means of making the abuser leave the house. With this closure of judicial institutions, people in the MENA-region might revert to traditional mechanisms of resolving social problems such as intra-communal mediating efforts, which tend to favor men over women and are often led by family patriarchs. Therefore, abusers might not be held accountable for GBV and women could be denied adequate protection.

Further increase of GBV in the long term

Turning a blind eye on GBV now could have devastating long-term consequences. The pandemic has caused the loss of jobs and income, which is particularly difficult for countries going through financial crises, such as Lebanon. In the MENA-region, it is estimated that around 1.7 million people will lose their jobs due to the pandemic, 700.000 of these women, especially in the informal sector. This will be a grave setback for a region where women only constitute about 20% of the workforce, with financial dependence on an abusive partner again aggravating GBV. The pandemic also leads to an increase in early and forced marriages and hinders access to education for girls, factors which in turn increase the risk of domestic violence. Same can be said for rising food insecurity, which can cause severe household tensions. Within households, women often (re-)assume the role of primary caretakers because of the pandemic, reinforcing traditional gender roles and further increasing the risk for GBV. Politically, GBV is now even more de-prioritized than before in the MENA-region, where many countries do not properly enforce their laws against domestic violence, or no laws exist at all and marital rape is often not criminalized.

Recommendations for policymakers in the MENA-region

  • Policies on COVID-19 should acknowledge and respect the disproportionate consequences the pandemic has on women, especially refugees and women living in conflict-ridden areas. National response plans should address the specific concerns of women regarding GBV.
  • The collection of data on reported cases of GBV and on the impact of COVID-19 on women’s livelihoods should be ensured, so informed responses can be taken.
  • Funding for protective services must be secured, access to help services guaranteed. New and innovative outreach mechanisms to GBV survivors should be designed (e.g. information campaigns in supermarkets, increased outreach to community leaders etc.) and the capacities of shelters and helplines increased.
  • The judicial and the health care system should be trained on GBV and respond accordingly despite COVID-19. Courts should be required to take action despite lock-downs to prevent impunity of the abusers.
  • Reforms should be taken to protect women’s jobs and income during the pandemic to prevent financial dependency on abusers.
  • In the long run, GBV should be made priority on the political agenda in the region and laws against domestic violence should be passed and properly enforced.
About the Author

Hannah Schöffmann holds a degree in law and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in “Global Studies” at the Karl-Franzens University in Graz, where she is writing her thesis on the protection against domestic violence in Austria in the context of migration. She is also working as a legal counselor at the counseling center DIVAN for migrant women who are survivors of violence in the name of honor and forced marriage.