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We Need a Feminist Response to this Virus in the Arab World

posted on: May 20, 2020

By: Dr. Lina Abirafeh/Arab America Contributing Writer

The world is slowly growing accustomed to our new reality under the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone is at risk, but those who are marginalized – women, the elderly, people living with disabilities, people without insurance, people with compromised immune systems, refugee populations – face greater challenges, especially in the Arab World.

I have spent my career as a humanitarian aid worker in contexts of crisis, working to address a more hidden global pandemic – violence against women. Everywhere I have worked – from Afghanistan to Mali to Haiti – women and girls suffer more.

More women died as a result of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami due to cultural restrictions placing them at home with children, social mores that prevented many women from ever learning to swim, and traditional clothing that encumbered movement.

Similarly, rates of violence against women grew exponentially in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with rape crisis shelters reaching capacity and extremely high rates of intimate partner violence due to lost livelihoods and prolonged insecurities.

During the Ebola crisis, women were more vulnerable to the infection, and more greatly infected because they lacked the necessary information to protect themselves, and they were hardly engaged in the response.

And now, our present COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath discriminate strongly against women and girls.

Already volatile due to socioeconomic instabilities and protracted humanitarian crises, the Arab region, where I now work, is uniquely affected by this global pandemic, with more than 62.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

Arab women are on the frontlines at home and in public, performing unpaid labor and exposing themselves to the infection to care for a sick child, an elderly family member, or a needy member of the community.

Amid this crisis, violence against women is increasing. For many women and girls, being quarantined safely is a luxury. Messages such as “stay at home” assume that home is safe. Intimate partner violence is the most common form of violence against women worldwide, and seeking shelter and safety from an abusive partner, difficult even in normal contexts, is practically impossible with restrictions due to the pandemic. And new cases are emerging where they didn’t exist before.

The police and justice systems de-prioritize these cases during the pandemic, leading to impunity. This is especially relevant in the Arab region where the majority of countries do not criminalize forms of violence against women.

Women in conflict contexts face additional risks during this pandemic. In Syria, female-headed households are further impoverished, with limited access to livelihoods and food security. Yemen is undergoing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Women’s lives are at risk from funding shortages – programming to address violence against women is scant, sexual and reproductive health services are inadequate or unavailable. Female refugees of these crises are at even greater risk of sexual exploitation by host communities.

In Palestine, restrictions on movements and services prevent women and girls from accessing essential services, including health, protection, security, and justice. In Iraq, there are alarming reports of a rise in intimate partner violence cases perpetrated across the country. In Lebanon, the number of reported cases of violence against women rose by 100% during the month of March. In Libya, women report being afraid to leave their homes – even to health facilities – unless accompanied by a male family member. And women are reporting increasing fear of violence at home.

Female migrant domestic workers are exposed to unique risks stemming from the nature of their jobs. Enforced lockdown means they are working around the clock often without the right to rest. The abuse they suffer – sexual, physical, psychological, economic – is heightened as a result of the additional stress of deteriorating economic conditions and health risks.

Scant available resources are being diverted to respond to COVID-19 cases, meaning women’s services and support are now further stretched.

Sexual exploitation and abuse have increased because of economic insecurities, shortages, new dependencies. Sex for food, sex for rent, sex for supplies – even in quarantine centers, security checkpoints, and health facilities – places where women should be safe. Armed forces, police, and officials all are taking advantage of their new power.

COVID-19 has forced millions of girls out of school, resulting in missed education and missed opportunities – and the chance they never actually go back. Girls face sexual exploitation, unintended pregnancy, increased forced marriage – with parents “offloading” their girls as an additional economic burden. UNFPA estimates that this may result in 2 million additional cases of female genital cutting, and 13 million additional cases of child marriage.

Our demands must be made clear; women’s groups must be involved in the development and delivery of services and must actively lead the response. All protective services for women must be classified as lifesaving and essential: hotlines, safe spaces, sexual, and reproductive health services. Everyone – donors, policymakers, implementers, the private sector – need to assume responsibility, and take action. We need political will and real resources – not just rhetoric.

We need a feminist response to the virus, with women in leadership roles. In the Arab region, this presents an opportunity to implement feminist policies and ensure that women’s rights groups have the tools and resources they need to advocate and act on behalf of women and girls.

The emergency does not end when the pandemic ends. We need our COVID-19 response to be more meaningful for women than other responses have been.


Dr. Lina Abirafeh is the Executive Director of the Arab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University – based in New York and Lebanon. Her background is in gender-based violence prevention and response in development and humanitarian contexts.


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