COVID-19: The Confines of the Household Besiege Lebanon’s Women

Published October 25th, 2020 - 10:28 GMT
For a whole year, Maryam stayed silent about the physical and verbal abuse inflicted on her by her husband, out of fear of society’s judgement and the stigma surrounding divorcees.
Image by ARIJ
For a whole year, Maryam stayed silent about the physical and verbal abuse inflicted on her by her husband, out of fear of society’s judgement and the stigma surrounding divorcees.

By Zainab Zuaiter

Maryam, a young woman in her thirties, escaped her husband’s verbal and physical abuse only to find herself imprisoned by her brother and his threats to sell her daughter. Today, she faces more violence and challenges as she is unable to obtain a birth certificate for her daughter or legally divorce her abusive husband. This is all a result of court closures; a decision made to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus.

For a whole year, Maryam stayed silent about the physical and verbal abuse inflicted on her by her husband, out of fear of society’s judgement and the stigma surrounding divorcees. Having lived in her parent’s home until the age of 27, Maryam struggled with the psychological and social pressure to get married and move out. The pressure drove her to settle for her husband, who is unemployed and takes captagon.

“My ex-husband used to hit me with whatever he could lay his hands on... sometimes it would be an iron chair. My body is still bruised, and I still have markings from when he beat me with a belt. I used to scream in pain, but he did not care,” Maryam said, pausing before adding, “I became afraid to communicate with him... I prefer to be silent because any dialogue between us used to end with screaming, beating and him trapping me at home.”

Maryam separated from her husband through verbal divorce, and, with her baby, moved to her mother's crowded house, where her brother, his wife and his three children also live. Under stifling economic conditions, Maryam’s brother insisted on leaving her daughter with her abusive father and even threatened to sell her to another family. Maryam was powerless as her marital disputes dragged on and the administrative deadline to register her child with social services had passed.


The legal time limit for child registration

The declaration of the birth must be made by the civil servant within a period of 30 days to be recorded in the personal status records. After the expiration of this period, registration is still possible after the payment of a fine which is valid up to one year from the child’s birth. After that, registration can only be done by a court decision.

Today, Maryam receives psychological, social and legal support from the Abaad organization for defending women's rights, which houses her and her child in one of their shelters.

An 87% Increase in Domestic Violence

According to Internal Security Forces records obtained by ARIJ, the first three months of lockdown saw a 47% increase in the rate of domestic violence crimes in Lebanon. Most alarmingly, the number of reported domestic crimes as COVID-19 broke out amounted to 453, compared to 242 last year, marking an 87% increase.

Infographic: Complaints Submitted by Victims of Domestic Violence

Before COVID-19

270 complaints in 2019

47 in November

81 in December

80 in January

63 in February 

After COVID-19

453 complaints in 2020

33 in February

97 in March

151 in April

161 in May

11 in early June

242 complaints from March to June 30, 2019.

453 complaints from the end of February to May, 2020


A Time of Loss

Dr. Anisa Al-Amin, a specialist in social and clinical psychology at the Lebanese University, talks about what she calls a "time of loss," as the essence of normal and traditional daily life has been "lost" due to quarantine. Additionally, the loss of a normal work routine and the increase in political conflicts have resulted in an increased level of tension, stress, hostility and consequently, a readiness to resort to violence.

As a result of economic isolation, the man loses his sense of power that is based in a false sense of "masculinity" rooted in culture and social upbringing. Al-Amin explains how "violence may take two paths, depending on the person’s psychological structure; either this violence turns back on the self, and causes a state of underestimation, inferiority and helplessness, or this violence is directed externally to the nearest target, which in this case is his wife." 

Rania was subjected to all sorts of violence at the hands of her husband, in the face of which she remained silent; obeying customs, traditions and the need to be "patient," as inherited from her mother.

She explains how her husband’s departure from home to the workplace or any other destination was like a shot of “morphine” that allowed her to survive temporarily. But the prolonged lockdown at home contributed to the intensification of the violence. Rania soon realised that she, as well as other women in her position, should not remain silent regarding the injustice women face. She consequently turned to the Kafa association in search of help, psychological and social support, as well as legal advice.

Legal Shortcomings

Although Lebanese society does not shelter women from violence, the legal system is meant to serve as a refuge for women and protect them from this violence. However, in reality, the legal deficiencies associated with domestic abuse have actually caused an increase in domestic violence, especially in light of the virus and quarantine.

A law protecting women from domestic violence was passed in Lebanon in 2014. Some of its advantages include:

- Before this law was passed, there was no specific law regarding domestic violence and crimes associated with domestic violence were classified as “regular crimes.”

- The law also recognizes the need to protect and legally aid women who have been previously subjected to violence.

- Further, a provision allowing women to obtain protection orders from their abusers was included in the law.

- The law calls for the establishment of temporary shelters for survivors of abuse. 

- The law insures the allocation of a Public Prosecutor to receive and investigate complaints and cases regarding domestic violence.

- The law calls for the establishment of specialized domestic violence units in local Lebanese police units to address complaints and cases of domestic abuse.

However, the law also contains many loopholes. For example, marital rape is not criminalized, and a husband or father’s murder of his wife or daughter is often classified as an honor crime.

University professor and researcher at the Center for Legal Informatics, Dr. Hadi Al-Shami, confirms that the prevalence of domestic crimes during COVID-19 times are mostly due to the absence of deterring and preventative measures. Specifically, the closure of courts for a prolonged period of time allowed the abusers or aggressors to feel as though they would not be held accountable for their violence. Therefore, this lack of accountability, coupled with the absence of fear regarding legal action allowed the abusers to freely enact violence in their households. Additionally, due to worsening economic conditions in light of the pandemic, women became more reluctant to hire lawyers and take their cases to court.

An informed official in the Internal Security Forces, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of their position, explains how “the level of anxiety has increased, along with mental illness and pressures imposed on citizens, especially men, who found themselves trapped under the same roof as their wives. Consequently, this hidden violence, which cannot be detected or investigated unless reported, increased.”

The official added that the security forces' units would immediately mobilise as soon as any complaint was received through the hotline: “We did not stop working. On the contrary, the pace of work doubled during COVID. If anything, the published statistics regarding the increase in the rate of violence are proof of that. We’ve also been arresting many perpetrators, especially in cases of repeated violence. In the event of repeated violence, formal records against the perpetrators are kept to avoid further violence by the same abusers. However, if the crime constituted more than just assault we would arrest the perpetrator and wait for the Public Prosecution to take action according to the appropriate legal procedure.”

When Will the Judiciary Act?

A judge concerned with domestic violence crimes, speaking on the condition of anonymity, detailed the process as follows, “the Public Prosecution office immediately acts when the abused woman turns to the police station to seek protection, or as soon as she communicates with the security forces via the hotline when reporting violence incurred by a family member.”

“The appropriate authority then intervenes at the police station and the victim is brought to give their testimony. Currently, due to the noticeable increase in domestic violence, the Public Prosecution office acts immediately despite the disruptions relating to the courts or lawyers. Additionally, the prosecution often gives its decision to arrest the aggressor or perpetrator. This happened more than once in many files that I personally received,” he added.

The aforementioned procedures were not properly followed during the earlier stages of quarantine due to the strict lockdown procedures, which forced the courts to shut for a long period of time. Afterwards, the Attorney General’s issued a decision, which included guidelines for the procedures relating to the operations of public prosecution offices during the lockdown period. This decision was passed in mid-April and implemented at the end of the month (approximately a full month after the first COVID case was recorded in Lebanon).

The decision outlined the necessity to instruct the judicial system to allow reports on all domestic violence cases. Additionally, the law did not require victims to testify in person at police centers if they are unable to due to health conditions. Instead, the appropriate legal personnel would contact the victim through other means as they see fit, such as video calls.

Lebanon’s Economic Loss in Numbers

More than 6,500 workers were laid off during the first six months of 2020, according to figures obtained by ARIJ from the Ministry of Labor. This figure however, does not accurately reflect reality because some companies do not disclose this information and unemployed workers do not always report their unemployment to the Ministry.

According to a survey by the National Social Security Fund, 21,450 workers left the labor market with the onset of COVID in Lebanon. Further, statistics indicate that employment slowed down by 71%.

According to the end-of-work guarantee fund, 37.5% of workers earn less than one million Lebanese pounds (approximately $661), which is less than the highest poverty line set at about 1.5 million LBP ($991), while 86% earn less than 3 Million LBP ($1,983).

With the Lebanese pound’s collapse and the deteriorating exchange rate, salaries have lost more than 80% of their value, especially since the Dollar has three exchange rates in the country. The official rate is set at 1,510 LBP, yet according to Banque du Liban it is 3,800 LBP. In other markets it exceeds 8,500 LBP and it is likely to continue to increase. 

Laila, a mother of four children, explains how she found herself subjected to a cycle of violence and hardship when her husband, who used to bring foreign domestic workers to the country, was forced to stay home for over 6 months due to COVID.

She recently filed a report at a police station and obtained an official pledge from her husband stating that he would no longer inflict any physical violence on her. However, things have not changed. Laila sees her situation as a result of "misfortune and lack of money.”

Laila is one of many who have settled for a painful reality, and remain in their husband's houses to be near their children, while waiting for conditions to change for the better.

Floating Anxiety: A Different Kind of Enemy 

Dr. Anisa Al-Amin says that violence is an essential and innate component of human beings, which is tamed by culture and education. However, external factors may generate characteristics which eventually perpetuate violent tendencies. In this case the personal dimension intersects with that of the political and national.

Referring to the crime that shook public opinion where a citizen slaughtered his wife, his brother, two Lebanese people and five Syrians, Al-Amin draws on her theory of "floating anxiety.” This anxiety, she says, is perpetuated by Lebanon’s ongoing political tension and results in a hostile and distressed environment at home. She believes that "floating anxiety is one of the most difficult stages that an individual may encounter. During conflict and war, danger is defined and specific, but today we are facing a situation in which there is no direct enemy."

In the pandemic, people have found themselves facing an unknown enemy that threatens their lives. The individual feels their own weakness and this makes them feel small in their own eyes, which leads them to underestimate their helpless self. This paves the way for violent behaviour of which women often fall victim.

In the words of United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka’s, “it is a pandemic of a hidden kind.” 


This investigation was carried out with the support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ).

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.



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