Unequal aid and ignored demands: Study reveals stark gap in gendered support following Beirut port explosion

Beirut blast women
6 min read
02 August, 2022

Jihane* has been running a small shop in Gemmayze for as long as she can remember.

The popular Beirut neighbourhood – known for its traditional architecture, once bustling nightlife, and art galleries – sustained heavy damages on August 4, 2020, after 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at the Beirut port resulted in one of the world's largest non-nuclear explosions, killing more than 200 people and wounding around 7,000.

Jihane's shop and home were severely devastated by the explosion. Despite receiving donations and funds from Stand For Women and Together LiBeirut NGOs, Jihane says that they only covered a fraction of the repairs.

"With restricted access to data, the legal group SEEDS was able to conclude that of the total incoming £137 million in aid, only £3.1 million specifically targeted women - a mere 2.28% of the total funds"

"I can't buy more items for my store the way I used to," she told The New Arab. "The aid was not distributed evenly. A male shop owner I know of received a new refrigerator and an espresso machine from NGOs that didn't even look my way."

A study done by  Beirut-based legal clinic SEEDS – supported by Women's Peace and Humanitarian Fund (WPHF), the German government, and UN women Lebanon – highlights that the aid response, mainly conducted by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and Civil Society organisations (CSOs), was gender blind.

Indeed, a copy of the study obtained by The New Arab shows that women's needs were largely ignored and aid was unevenly distributed.

According to the local outlet, L'orient Le Jour, around £261 million was donated by international groups and £349 million pledged to the 3RF; a response plan named "Lebanon Reform, Recovery and Reconstruction Framework" launched by the United Nations, the European Union and the World Bank.

The latter estimates that damages and losses are between £5.5-£6.5 billion.

In looking at how gender-inclusive the donations were, SEEDS ran into the issue of limited data, especially gendered data provided by donors.

With restricted access to data, the legal group was able to conclude that of the total incoming £137 million in aid, only £3.1 million specifically targeted women – a mere 2.28 percent of the total funds.

"Women were able to benefit from the aid but not in a sufficient manner," Rola Najem, legal researcher and journalist at SEEDS told The New Arab. "They [women] were so fed up with aid concentrated in food boxes, in time when their needs as breadwinners, disabled, elderly, migrant workers, refugees and LGBTQ+ women, to name a few, were dismissed."

LGBTQ+ women, in particular, received the least amount of aid, the study highlights.

SEEDS found that women living in close proximity to the port were forcibly displaced from their homes once they were partially or completely destroyed. Moving into new homes with family members or strangers heightened their risk of gendered-based violence and poor living conditions.

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Female-headed households accounted for 52 percent of the affected population, compounding the responsibility of women breadwinners. The study also shows that they were more likely to care for elderly family members or those with chronic illnesses.

In fact, the Rapid Gender Analysis conducted by UN Women in 2020 estimated that 8 percent of the blast's survivors were elderly women living in isolation without the presence of earners at home.

Female Syrian refugees and migrant workers suffered from discrimination and favouritism in aid distribution; many had their shelters destroyed and official papers lost, leading to homelessness and the inability to return to their home countries.

Under the pretext of dire economic conditions, some employers abandoned their migrant workers on the streets, without compensation, or even passports.

"A clear pattern emerged from their observations; whenever a major crisis hit, gender was no longer a priority"

The study points to several reasons driving the lack of gendered aid. According to feminist experts, the 3RF, for instance, was not gender-balanced. Additionally, donors possessed a superficial understanding of gender equality and would only equate it with gender-based violence without including minority groups.

Furthermore, the absence of reliable data and transparency from donors and organisations imposed a challenge to deliver accountability to those who failed to meet women's demands and needs.

"Despite the collective effort by NGOs and CSOs, the work was disorganised and much of the funds did not target all groups in need, leaving people to suffer to this very day," Rola said.

The absence of an adequate gender response is not specific to Lebanon, Najem notes. The researcher says that the study analysed crises across the globe ranging from war-torn Syria, Yemen, and Ukraine to the COVID pandemic in the US.

A clear pattern emerged from their observations; whenever a major crisis hit, gender was no longer a priority.

"This isn't sustainable. Crises always hit women harder than men so solutions are needed across the globe," Rola said.

According to Nuhad Yazbek, the head of the Syndicate of Nurses, beneficiary organisations receiving funds needed to develop negotiation skills pushing donors to target their aid on gendered needs and demands.

"NGO work should be community-based and inclusive of women's opinions in how the aid should be directed. They would tell us what they need and as non-profit organisations, we'd do our best to meet their demands," Nuhad told The New Arab.

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Nuhad notes that Lebanon is riddled with a toxic NGO culture that sometimes places personal interest above collective interest.

"I've had my fair share of experiences with non-governmental associations to know that there is a crisis of mindsets," Nuhad said. "There are people who prioritise their own reputation over people's needs. This ego-driven approach obstructs our ability to serve society well."

Two years have passed since the explosion and no one has been held accountable. Politicians with large-scale impunity and a delayed investigation mean that families of the victims and those who had to deal with the aftermaths of one of the world's largest explosions, live to see more days of exacerbated trauma and injustice.

"I used to adore this country but it's no longer ours to live in. I want to leave and make sure my kids grow up elsewhere," Jihane, the shopkeeper from Gemmayze lamented.

* Name changed for privacy concerns 

Dana Hourany is a multimedia journalist based in Beirut.

Follow her on Twitter: @DanaHourany