Figures released last week by the Internal Security Forces (ISF) showed a 51-percent increase in domestic violence calls to its hotline since the start of COVID-19.
The impact of the health pandemic on society has tremendously shed light on domestic and gender-based violence in Lebanon. The ISF revealed the figures to coincide with the UN’s international 16-day campaign to end gender-based violence.
The report also revealed a rise in cases of domestic violence, including the concerning figure of 14 percent of abused women to be under the age of 18.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus-induced lockdowns, which were implemented by the government intermittently for the last nine months to keep citizens safe from the virus, have in turn put vulnerable women in danger in their own homes.
Locked at home, a place that should be a safe haven for individuals turned out to be a new form of torture. Victims have reached out by phone to NGOs, which have also seen a rise in calls for help from domestic violence victims.
Kafa, a Lebanese NGO working to eliminate gender-based violence, has seen a stark increase in the number of phone calls to its 24/7 support center since the government imposed a country-wide lockdown in March.
The number jumped from 299 at the start of the pandemic to 938 calls received in May, just two months on. Since then, the figures have topped 1,000 calls a month.
“When people are stuck in their houses, with no alternatives, any man that has the potential to use violence to subjugate his wife will do it. And this will be exacerbated when economic and living conditions get worse,” Zoya Rouhana, director of Kafa told local media reporters.
Rouhana is describing Lebanon’s worst economic crisis since the Civil War. It has witnessed the Lebanese pound lose more than 80 percent of its value, causing basic living necessities to triple in price.
The financial woes have also resulted in high unemployment rates, leaving more people out of work and at home.
Besides the pandemic, the absence of a unified civil status law in the country result in issues regarding marriage, divorce, and child custody that end up being decided by personal status laws.
These are run by 15 separate sectarian courts that overwhelmingly rule toward men. This leaves women with limited rights to end abusive marriages, gain financial support, or protect their children
Created in 2014 after years of campaigning by activists, Law 293 is meant to protect victims of domestic violence.
However, Lebanese women exposed to domestic violence are not able to fully rely on Law 293 due, in most cases, to economic factors.
According to AUB’s Policy Brief, filing a case against an abusive husband would require an economic empowerment that is absent among most of the abused women.
Abused women lack an alternative economic resource in case of the absence of their husband, or outside the marital house.
Abaad, a Lebanese NGO focused on achieving gender equality, has been training ISF officers since 2014 on how to deal with gender-based violence (GVB).
Raghida Ghamlouch, program manager at Abaad, told local media that “for a long time, there was a lack of knowledge and sensitivity on the subject of GVB, and how to deal with victims.”
Abaad has also worked with the ISF’s phone call handlers who answer calls of domestic abuse. The ISF’s dedicated hotline, 1745, established in 2018, has been a crucial step forward in the safety of women in Lebanon.
As the government’s general mobilization measures have halted people’s ability to move freely, the hotline has been a vital resource for tackling cases of violence.
From February to November this year, the ISF received 1,120 calls of domestic violence complaints, which is an increase of 102% compared to the same period last year, according to the force.
Over at the hotline run by Kafa, the months of July, September, and October of this year alone recorded over 1,000 calls.
Rouhana at Kafa explained that, when she began campaigning for women’s rights in the 1990s, “the issue of violence against women was totally fraught in Lebanese society.”
She worked on educating people and speaking publicly about the problem to encourage women to speak out. “Changing culture will take time but it will happen,” she said.
Yet, Rouhana admitted: “It is a very long struggle. Maybe it is easier to change laws. But, to change society and culture, that is an even longer obstacle.”