A wave of domestic violence is breaking across the locked-down Middle East

Before the pandemic, the World Bank predicted that 40 per cent of Lebanese people would fall below the poverty line this year. Now more than half the population face this fate

Bel Trew
in Beirut
Sunday 19 April 2020 15:48
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Videos from inside refugee camps in Lebanon raise coronavirus concerns

Being cooped up inside, against the backdrop of so much personal, financial and global uncertainty, feels like a brutal psychological marathon. But imagine being locked up with an abuser, in a tiny home where you’re either under the poverty line or slipping under it. Where you’re struggling to keep a roof above your head and food on your table. Where your abuser takes their frustrations about this out on you.

Governments and human rights groups across the world have registered an incredibly worrying surge in domestic violence, as people have been forced to lock themselves up at home with whomever is in their household. The Middle East is no exception. But here, many rights groups say abuse can be compounded by the financial and political crises that were already ravaging the region before the virus arrived, piling additional pressure on people.

Many of the coronavirus lockdowns are even more severe than in the UK, not even permitting exercise outside and so any respite at all. In Tunisia – where the government has intermittently banned people from even going to supermarkets – authorities say cases of domestic violence have increased fivefold. In Jordan, which has rolled out similarly strict regulations, a video of a distraught woman describing her abuse under quarantine has been shared widely online. In Lebanon, where again exercise outside is forbidden and there are nightly and weekend curfews, calls to a government domestic violence hotline have doubled.

Lebanese rights groups Abaad, which also runs a shelter for victims of domestic abuse, registered an even worse trend, reporting that the number of calls to its helplines has risen by nearly 60 per cent this year compared to same period in 2019. It has received more than 500 calls since January, the overwhelming majority from women – more than the total calls received during the whole of 2019.

“We’re not only seeing the numbers [of calls] increase but the violence and death threats – it’s becoming for many a life-threatening situation,” Ghida Anani, Abaad’s founder and director of the organisation, told me. “The lack of serious governmental support like financial aid is making matters worse: those with a predisposition to violence with all the stress are taking it out on their families.

“Most of the women who call us are asking for aid, saying ‘we need this, as he might kill me and the kids because we don’t have food at home’. They say that if they have some support it might mitigate some of the violence.”

On Thursday, the group urged people across the country to come out on their balconies at 6pm to help share their hotline number for victims, under the hashtag “lockdown not lock up”. It is running Skype counselling sessions for victims, and for men with a history of violence to prevent the further spread of abuse. Abaad has also teamed up with the government to distribute kits containing household essentials, support leaflets and helpline contacts to further help people.

Right now it is trying to explore ways of reaching out to vulnerable women and children as well as the elderly or those with special needs who do not have access to a phone. Abaad has also been expanding its response on social media platforms. “If the government doesn’t take serious steps in fast tracking the process to help families in poverty we will see the situation become much more violent, as well as suicide rates increase. It’s an emergency situation,” Anani added.

Before the pandemic, the World Bank predicted that 40 per cent of Lebanon would be under the poverty line this year, after a revolution against soaring prices and corruption erupted in October. Experts told me the country’s economy was now in “freefall without a parachute”, and that it is more likely that half the country’s population of over 6 million will be under the poverty line in 2020.

Food costs are soaring while the currency has lost half its value on a parallel market. Meanwhile unemployment has surged and banks have restricted access to dollars, causing further woes. The government has announced financial support packages to the poorest families but that has yet to materialise.

And so the crumbling economy has piled additional pressure onto already stressed families which may exacerbate violence at home. It has also bubbled over into social unrest. Despite the lockdown, protests and clashes have erupted in the northern city Tripoli, where people said they are unable to feed themselves.

Another vulnerable demographic rights groups are worried about is Lebanon’s massive refugee population. There are concerns about a surge in domestic violence in the camps where many are living whole families to a single tent or in crammed neighbourhoods, where lockdown and curfew restrictions are even tighter.

Mohamed Hassan, a 30-year-old Palestinian refugee and community leader in Lebanon’s Ein Helwa refugee camp, told me he had noticed a concerning spike in conflict within families who were struggling to put food on the table.

He said the quarantine regulations also mean that rights groups that used to help counsel people and intervene were not able to do, making things worse. “Everyone is living day by day because of the isolation. There is a massive lack of things like vegetables, meat and milk for the children. Most people have no work,” he said, with desperation.

“This is having a profound impact on people. The problems between families are getting worse, there are fights all the time. I am very worried about domestic violence and in particular for the children.”

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