We need to talk about violence against women in MENA
The 25th of November marks the launch of UN Women’s 16-day campaign to raise awareness in its aim to ultimately end gender-based violence, as well as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
The high-profile campaign’s theme this year is using the colour orange, “to represent a brighter future free of violence against women and girls.” The campaign will conclude on International Human Rights day and will be hosting several digital and in-person awareness-raising events.
Renewed social and political attention has been given to the concerning issue of gender-based violence (GBV) since well-covered movements such as ‘Me Too’ have launched, but on a much more intimate level as well, during the lockdown phase of the pandemic.
"Worldwide, one in three girls and women are subject to physical or sexual violence, one in 137 are killed by a family member, and less than 40 percent are able to take any sort of action in their own defence"
During the lockdowns of 2020 there was a global surge in recorded domestic violence. Generally, one in every three women has faced some kind of physical or verbal violence in their lifetimes, during the lockdown, this increased to two in three women having been subject or knowing another woman who has been subject to violence.
The data, collected from women in over 13 countries, also found that despite this, only one in ten women ever come forward about their abuse to the authorities. It also highlighted a higher likelihood of food insecurity amongst women.
The Arab world has never been an exception to this unjust rule with a number of instances that bring to light aspects of gendered-violence not often discussed. For example, there was a regional surge in reporting sexual harassment in Egypt, so much so it made international headlines.
Pages on social media brought to attention the ‘Fairmont Case,’ involving drugging, harassing, extorting, and gang rape of a young woman. The perpetrators, a group of young and privileged men, were apparently accustomed to treating women in this manner as a dearth of allegations against each of these men came forward.
While it gained traction and many were, somewhat naively, hopeful that the many victims would get the justice they deserve, the case has been more or less shelved. The case was mishandled in some aspects, some of the nine accused fled the country and in turn evaded their punishment, witnesses were detained, and toxic political and social pressure were put on the women that came forward.
In Jordan, a viral video of a woman pleading to the country’s King for help ultimately garnered her national support for a domestic problem. The young woman was being psychologically abused by her mother and siblings and claims to have been turned away and threatened at the women’s shelter. Her plea included support for herself as well as other women during the lockdown period. Highlighting a part of public and social media sentiment at the time, a prevalent response:
"We're under quarantine, courts are closed.. if ever there was a time to give your wife a good slap it's now. No family to rescue her, no hospital to accept her, no state to protect her [laughing faces]…"
"Stopping this violence starts with believing survivors, adopting comprehensive and inclusive approaches that tackle the root causes, transform harmful social norms, and empower women and girls"
Issues in Lebanon highlighted another aspect of often (regionally) under-considered GBV: violence against female foreign domestic workers (FFDW). A crisis erupted, as Lebanon was not only facing stringent quarantine measures but a rapid and ultimately fatal economic crisis.
The severe devaluation of the currency has propelled an estimated 90 percent of the population under the poverty line. As a result, in addition to more deep-rooted issues such as the Kafala system and racism, women were abandoned en-masse in front of their embassies, completely destitute. This had already been happening but somewhat reached a new peak in the summer of last year. There were a number of instances of suicides by FFDW in shelters and in the home of employment.
These instances centre different spaces where women are made more vulnerable; as foreign workers, in the legal sphere, and in the home. This builds into a collective reluctance to even report crimes against women, let alone attempt to rectify them. Worldwide, one in three girls and women are subject to physical or sexual violence, one in 137 are killed by a family member, and less than 40 percent are able to take any sort of action in their own defence. The worldwide phenomenon is not an inexplicable one, but one rooted in inequality on a social, legal, and political level that translates into perceived and often real impunity.
The coming days of activism are set to raise awareness on global issues of violence against women and UN Women succinctly present conclusive recommendations on a way forward:
“Stopping this violence starts with believing survivors, adopting comprehensive and inclusive approaches that tackle the root causes, transform harmful social norms, and empower women and girls. With survivor-centred essential services across policing, justice, health, and social sectors, and sufficient financing for the women’s rights agenda, we can end gender-based violence.”
Nadine Sayegh is a multidisciplinary writer and researcher covering the Arab world. She has covered topics including gender in the region, countering violent extremism, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, amongst other social and political issues.