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Gender-based violence 'devastates' women across MENA: Amnesty

In recent years several MENA countries have made “limited” advances on women’s rights. [Getty]

Date of publication: 7 March, 2021

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Marking International Women's Day, Amnesty highlights the plight of women throughout the MENA, who struggle with added pressures deriving from the effects of the global Covid-19 pandemic.
Women in the Middle East face daily discrimination and violence, a report by Amnesty International has found, as the rights group says there is an "abject failure"of governments to stamp out gender-based violence.

Abductions, assassinations on so-called "honour" killings and other forms of violence against women continues to be part of daily life in the region, the report has found.

Marking International Women's Day, the group highlighted the plight of women throughout the MENA, who struggle with added pressures deriving from the effects of the global Covid-19 pandemic.

"Across MENA, many women and girls' lives continue to be blighted by the daily reality of violence in the home or in street," aid Heba Morayef, Amnesty International's regional director for the Middle East and North Africa.

"Gender-based violence is already a pervasive human rights concern in MENA and the spike in domestic violence during COVID-19 lockdowns has had catastrophic consequences," Morayef said.

"In recent years, while women's rights defenders across the region have won important battles that brought limited advances in women’s rights, in particular through legislative reforms repealing discriminatory laws, this progress has been overshadowed by governments either committing or at the very least acquiescing to gender-based violence that continues to have a devastating impact on women’s lives," Morayef added.

Women’s rights organisations, helplines and shelters for survivors of domestic violence in some MENA countries including Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia reported an increase in calls for support or recorded a rise in cases of gender-based violence.

In Algeria, at least 39 cases of murder or "intentional assault and battery" resulting in death were recorded by the Centre of Information on the Rights of Women and Children during the Covid-19 lockdown, with women's rights groups warning that the true number of cases is likely to be higher.

In recent years several MENA countries have made "limited" advances on women’s rights at a legislative and institutional level, the statement reads.

These include long-overdue reforms to Saudi Arabia's discriminatory male guardianship system and the lifting of the ban on women drivers, establishing a complaints mechanism for survivors of domestic violence in Tunisia and a shelter for women at risk of so-called "honour crimes" in Jordan.

Across the Maghreb, legal provisions to combat violence against women have been introduced - including a landmark 2017 law in Tunisia to protect women from all forms of gender-based violence.

However, Amnesty says these gains have been overshadowed by continuing violence and discrimination women face, particularly in matters of marriage, inheritance and child custody, and have been undermined by weak implementation of reforms and continued denial of women’s agency

So-called "honour" killings have continued to be recorded in Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait and Palestinian communities in Israel and Palestine, where authorities have failed to take action to prosecute perpetrators or address the underlying discriminatory laws or gender norms which allow such violence to thrive. 

In several countries, women human rights defenders have faced threats – including threats of rape - intimidation, travel bans or even violent attacks and killings, by state and non-state actors seeking to silence them.  

In Libya, women and girls have faced physical assault, abductions assassination and sexual violence as well as smear campaigns and online abuse at the hands of militias and armed groups. Most recently in November 2020, Libyan lawyer Hanan al-Barassi was shot dead in Benghazi after criticizing corruption of individuals affiliated to armed groups in Eastern Libya.

Similarly, in Iraq, gunmen shot dead Reham Yacoub, an activist known for organising local protests in Basra in August 2020.

In Egypt, an online campaign against sexual harassment and violence by young feminists led to the arrest of several men accused of rape in August 2020.

Yet despite the Egyptian authorities’ approval of a legal provision allowing prosecutors to grant anonymity to survivors of sexual violence, survivors and witnesses who testified in such cases or spoke out about sexual violence have continued to face arrest and prosecution.

In 2020, at least nine female social media influencers were prosecuted on charges of "violating family principles" for videos posted on TikTok.

Pro-government media outlets have also engaged in a vicious smear campaign against women survivors of sexual violence and their supporters.

In Iran, "morality" police continue to enforce discriminatory and degrading forced veiling laws subjecting women and girls to daily harassment and violent attacks.

There is the added challenge of reporting abuse; women who come forward face serious obstacles to accessing justice.

In Libya they risk arrest for "adultery" and in the case of refugees and migrants, survivors don't dare approach police fearing arrest and deportation. 

Women in Jordan have reported fearing being detained in shelters for reporting violence committed against them.

Despite reforms, Saudi Arabia's male guardianship system continues to enable male guardians to perpetuate violence against women and fails to protect them from sexual and physical violence. For example, women who suffer domestic violence continue to need a male guardian’s permission to leave shelters.

While many countries have repealed legal provisions enabling rapists to escape prosecution by marrying their victim the law persists in a number of MENA countries, the statements notes.

"[Authorities] must ensure that the rights of survivors are protected, that survivors can safely access justice and that perpetrators are held to account. Survivors must be able to access adequate shelter, psycho-social support as well as legal and other services," said Morayef.  

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