How the climate crisis is linked to rising domestic violence in Lebanon
June and July marked some of the most scorching temperatures Lebanon has seen, it has also been one of the deadliest and most violent periods for women and children in the country.
Amidst a divided parliament, an environment of corruption and state neglect, as well as a crumbling economy, the protection of women and children seems to be at the very bottom of the list of national priorities.
Nevertheless, the growing crisis should be raising alarms.
KAFA, an NGO that fights gender-based violence and exploitation, estimated that 12 women were killed, 6 experienced attempted murder, and 7 committed suicide in the first six months of 2023. These are only reported cases.
Beirut-based NGO ABAAD conducted a study in 2022 that found that 6 out of 10 women who experienced sexual assault chose not to report the crime due to concerns related to “family honour”. Furthermore, 3 out of 10 women whose daughters had suffered sexual assault refrained from reporting the incidents, stating they feared they wouldn’t be believed.
''In a country where domestic violence is too often considered a 'family matter', the murder of girls and women is relegated to 'crimes of honour', and women fear reporting sexual assault, climate change merely exasperates an existing problem.''
All those killed were murdered by either their partners or close relatives. Most were shot dead in public areas, or their homes. Reasons range from partners accusing the women of infidelity or staining the family’s honour. One pregnant woman was severely beaten and burned to death by her husband.
Other victims committed suicide because they could not bear the abuse anymore.
A dangerous year for children in Lebanon
It has also been a dangerous time for children in Lebanon. In the first five months of 2023, Himaya, an NGO that specialises in child protection, responded to an alarming 1,415 instances of child violence.
Even institutions that present themselves as protective spaces for the most vulnerable in Lebanese society, seem to be complicit in such abuse. The NGO Village of Love and Peace, purportedly sheltered and cared for abandoned and at-risk children, was forced to shut down when it was uncovered that children under their care were forced to ingest drugs and alcohol and participate in sexual acts. Both the founder, Norma Saeed, and one of her employees, Jebran Kali, have been accused of trafficking, sexual abuse, and harassment directed. Saeed is also said to have fabricated documents for toddlers under her guardianship who were sold to families.
The horror doesn’t end there.
The heart-breaking story of the rape and death of six-year-old Leen Talib, is Lebanon’s most recent case of sexual violence and murder. It was uncovered the little girl has been repeatedly raped, causing fatal internal bleeding. Following DNA tests there have been allegations that her uncle was involved.
Members of Talib’s family has been accused of withholding information about what happened. Both the uncle and the grandfather were apprehended on similar charges, along with the mother and grandmother, who were accused of trying to conceal the crime.
The ongoing economic crisis in Lebanon has led to an increase in incidents of domestic violence. Further, with 55% of Lebanese citizens and 91% of refugees living below the poverty line, it means this growing issue is invisibilised.
Adding to the crises, extreme heat waves have hit Lebanon in a manner never before seen. This summer saw a 5-fold increase in temperatures compared to regular averages. Environment Minister Nasser Yassin said that the consequences of climate change in the country are “frightening” and will further exacerbate the economic crisis, as it will result in daunting repercussions on agricultural and food security.
Undoubtedly, all of this will disproportionately impact the most marginalised and disadvantaged communities in Lebanon; refugees, migrants, and working-class people.
In this context, it is important that the links between all of Lebanon’s social problems are understood. Especially when we consider a recent study that revealed a link between a 1-degree Celsius rise in average annual temperature and an 8% increase in instances of physical violence as well as a 7.3 % increase in sexual violence.
The severe heat triggers crop failures, disrupts infrastructure, harms economies, confines people indoors, and hinders work, which creates extreme stress for families and therefore increases all forms of violence. Notably, the study highlighted that while violence increased due to heat across all income levels, the most significant surges were seen among lower-income and rural households.
Indeed, while climate change affects entire populations, its impact on women and girls is particularly severe, subjecting them to a dual victimisation.
The justice system’s failures
What adds to the dangerous climate is the lack of protection for victims.
Not only does Lebanon lack strong laws that protect women and children from violence, but its judicial system is also inherently corrupt, enabling sexual abusers and murderers with political connections to walk free, or receive minimal sentences.
For example, in 2022, Samer Mawlawi, a high school teacher, was tried in court for sexually assaulting underage students in the city of Tripoli. He was released with the judge concluding his actions were a “misdemeanour”. Students called to testify also stated that the judge handling their case used inappropriate sexual language, and even accused them of lying during trial.
This was the first time someone accused of sexual harassment was arrested under the newly enacted 2020 anti-harassment law – which passed after years of advocacy and campaigning by Lebanese feminist groups. However, the law, which was criticised by Human rights organisations for missing key protections, has highlighted through Mawlawi’s case, that it is not sufficient. While the law introduced important measures, it falls short in adequately addressing various aspects of domestic violence, including criminalisation of marital rape, effective victim protection, and stringent penalties. The law's implementation, monitoring, and broader strategies are also areas of concern.
The inherently patriarchal and corruptible Lebanese judicial system must be reformed if it is to provide any protection to victims.
Additionally, personal status laws in Lebanon are responsible for perpetuating domestic violence, as they are weaponised to systematically discriminate against women and children in personal, divorce, marriage, and child custody matters.
Awarding disproportionate power to husbands over their wives, these laws trap women in violent relationships and abusive environments due to the difficulty of obtaining a divorce or custody of children. They also legalise marital rape, allowing husbands to escape and legal consequences for their crimes.
Furthermore, the personal status laws related to marriage expose children to the risk of being forced into early marriage. It means children as young as nine can be legally married without requiring their consent. The economic crisis has driven some families to resort to early marriages as a means of easing financial difficulties. ‘Child brides’ are at heightened risk of domestic violence, marital rape, and death by birth.
The hopeless state of things
In a country where domestic violence is too often considered a “family matter,” the murder of girls and women is relegated to “crimes of honour”, and women fear reporting sexual assault, climate change merely exasperates an existing problem.
Without addressing the structural and social violence plaguing the streets, schools, and homes, and the patriarchal norms and laws that uphold it, the problem will only worsen as the climate crisis continues.
Warlords, self-serving ministers, and profit-hungry capitalists have governed Lebanon for decades, justifying laws and neglecting necessary reforms to further their interests. Given this context, it is hardly surprising that the Lebanese government, which is responsible for one of the worst economic crises to have hit the country, and the largest non-nuclear blast in history, is failing to stop the murders, rapes, and abuse against women and children.
Clara Diba is a Lebanese writer, student, and activist currently pursuing a master’s degree in Globalization and Development Studies at Maastricht University.
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.