Trapped with domestic abusers: How Covid-19 lockdowns are endangering vulnerable women across the Middle East

Trapped with domestic abusers: How Covid-19 lockdowns are endangering vulnerable women across the Middle East
In patriarchal societies, women who suffer from domestic abuse will be left even more vulnerable in the face of lockdowns.
7 min read
31 March, 2020
Women are even more vulnerable now [Getty]
With households across the world on lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, many women are finding themselves trapped between the virus and domestic abuse.

In the Middle East, the story of Jordanian domestic abuse victim Eman al-Khateeb went viral after she sent an online plea for help when she was almost killed by her brother during quarantine after dealing with years of abuse by her family and ex-husband.

In her plea, she said she is divorced with a 13-year-old son and was made redundant after the coronavirus outbreak, but her ex-husband refuses to pay alimony to cover her and her son's expenses.

Her brother Ayman kicked her and her son out of their home, without money or their personal belongings, and told her never to return. He said that she will be killed if she comes home without cash.

Despite Eman's story being the first and only high-profile case of heightened domestic abuse under quarantine in the region, it shows that fears of lockdowns causing a rise in violence against women are very much real.

"With women having no choice other than staying home and no means to escape, we expect that violence against women will increase," Suad Abu Dayyeh, a women's rights campaigner for Equality Now told The New Arab.

With women having no choice other than staying home, and no means to escape, we expect that violence against women will increase

Violence against women in the Arab world is already high. According to the UN, 37 percent of "ever married women" in the East Mediterranean region – which encompasses most Arab nations – have experienced physical or sexual partner violence, but even they acknowledge the statistic may be much higher.

A study by the World Bank showed that the Middle East and North African region has the lowest number of laws protecting women from domestic violence in the world. 

"Because of the sensitivity of the topic, it's difficult to come up with official statistics on how the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in the rise of domestic violence, but we are expecting the number to skyrocket," Suad explained.

Read also: Malaysian authorities urge women to 'avoid nagging, wear makeup' during coronavirus lockdown

Rothna Begum, senior women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said that the increase in abuse women are likely to face is exacerbated by already patriarchal structures that deem women's lives unworthy.

"We need to remember that the rise in abuse will not happen in a vacuum – women will be more likely to be abused in a context of existing patriarchal context where gender-based violence is largely accepted as an internal household issue," she said.

Both expressed worries that the stress, boredom and anxiety of being under lockdown can even prompt abuse in households that may not be typically abusive. 

"The abuse could even start small, such as a woman's husband or male relative entering the kitchen and harassing her about the food and house, out of boredom, which could unfortunately escalate," Suad explained.

Going online is a 'luxury' for many women 

Eman's story provoked mixed reactions. Despite there being some who condemned her for "publicly humiliating her family" by "exposing their behaviour", the majority of the Jordanian public has been supportive of Eman for speaking out. 

"Eman is now in a shelter and she's safe and because of this, she has a responsibility to speak up that things do get better after pleading for help for those still too scared to do so," Suad said, updating The New Arab on her situation. 

"What needs to be remembered is that she is amongst those who actually have internet access to use their personal platforms for help."

Kayyan, a Palestinian women's rights organisation based in Haifa, released a WhatsApp hotline for victims of domestic abuse to contact them.

Suad explained that despite the internet being a prominent tool to alleviate victims of domestic violence, there are many who do not have the luxury of internet access.

"The worry is there are many vulnerable women in remote areas or villages who do not have access to the internet, let alone have a smartphone to live broadcast their abuse."

There are also many girls and women who despite coming from affluent or middle-class families, will be cut off from the world by force.

"Having access to the internet doesn't guarantee safety," Rothna said.

"There will be many cases of women being forced to hand over their devices to men who claim to need it more, or who are intentionally trying to stop them from seeking escape from abuse."

Read also: Moroccan #MeToo helps women break their silence against sexual harassment and rape

There may also be a rise in depriving young girls of education where online learning facilities are limited and will have to give up their time on the internet or laptop for their brothers to study instead, she explained.

Even traditional methods of actively looking for women in remote areas, or allowing them a safe space to speak up against abuse in NGO-run health clinics, are being diminished as an effect of the response to coronavirus.

Shelters under strain

With lockdowns imposed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, women will be less able to escape to already under-resourced shelters.

"In some countries in the region, for example Morocco, there are as little as 10 shelters in the whole country, and the majority of them are run by NGOs," Rothna explained.

We need to pressure governments in remembering women's rights, and that women are now more vulnerable than ever

Morocco has a population of over 36 million people. Despite enacting a law to protect women from physical and sexual violence in September 2018, its infrastructure to protect fleeing women remains evidently weak. 

Even established shelters are finding it more difficult to cater to victims running away from abuse.

"We are running low on employees because they aren't able to leave their own families alone," Saeeda al-Atrash, director of Safe House in Palestine's occupied city of Bethlehem, told The New Arab

"We've been forced to not accept new victims because of the threat of coronavirus contamination," she added.

She also found a drop in women approaching the shelter for help, which she predicts may be because of the lockdown measures imposed in Bethlehem, along with them fearing contracting the deadly disease. 

In worse cases, in some Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, women are not even in control of whether they feel safe enough to stay and leave, according to Rothna. This leaves women at the mercy of the state and their male guardians to deem them in a safe enough environment if their guardians agree to stop abusing them.

Not a priority

As the deadly disease spreads, authorities are more likely to prioritise ensuring lockdown measures are adhered to rather than deal with domestic violence. 

"The police are usually partners in referring victims of domestic abuse to our shelter but most of their officers are being deployed to ward streets for those who are breaking lockdown rules," Saeeda explained.

"We need to pressure governments in remembering women's rights and that women are now more vulnerable than ever," Suad urged. 

She said it could potentially even be a wake-up call if civil society puts enough pressure on authorities, and they start to coordinate.

According to Rothna, governments need to become more creative in spreading the message using localised ways of contact to reach out to women and encourage them to seek help. For example, using phone lines instead of leaflets for the Amazigh community in the Maghreb region, where many women are illiterate.

"The fact that no government in the region has even spoken about domestic violence in the face of this pandemic is very telling. They may even use coronavirus as another excuse on top of the patriarchal fabric to dismiss women," Rothna said. 

Whilst both possibilities are likely, and may even happen simultaneously in different parts of the two-continent region, the coronavirus pandemic will continue to highlight the detrimental effects of patriarchy as victims will have even less of a support system.

Diana Alghoul is a journalist at The New Arab.

Follow her on Twitter: @SuperKnafeh and Instagram: @flowerknafeh