The past year has not had an ordinary impact on the residents of Lebanon, and - we can say with some degree of confidence - on its resident Syrian refugees in particular. The COVID-19 pandemic not only affected the health aspects of their lives, but also arrived accompanied by an economic collapse that was ranked among the worst in modern times. Both have joined forces to cast a shadow over the lives of Syrians living in this small country, and thrust even more burdens upon them.
As in many parts of the world, the lockdown period left a heavy impact on women, subjecting them to further physical, verbal and psychological violence. As for the Syrian refugee women living in Lebanon, they have been struggling under an even heavier burden as they face further pressure and violence as a reaction to the deterioration of the economic situation of their families. With many men losing their jobs, wives have become an outlet for men to vent their anger on. And with husbands staying at home most of the time, it has become very difficult for women to report the cases of domestic violence that they are being subjected to, leaving their stories confined to the walls of their homes and tents.
“Phones are No Longer an Option for Help”
Maya Haddad, a social worker and senior case manager with KAFA, an NGO working to combat all forms of discrimination and gender-based violence against women, says that the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is unique, as most of them are subjected to discrimination on a daily basis.
Syrian refugee women living in Lebanon have struggled under an especially heavy burden as they face pressure and violence as a reaction to the deterioration of the economic situation of their families.
Haddad works in the Bekaa, a region that includes the largest concentration of Syrians in Lebanon. In an interview with Raseef22, she states, “During the complete lockdown, we as an organization had difficulty gaining access to cases at risk of violence. With the presence of men in homes, they prevented women from leaving. This also applied to communicating by phone, because in most cases it is men who carry the device, and women do not have their own, and therefore they have no means to ask for help.”
Zainab, a Syrian refugee in a Bekaa refugee camp, was subjected to violence at the hands of her husband for six years. Under a pseudonym, she told Raseef22, “I did not know that there were organizations that could help me, because my ex-husband used to prevent me from going out. He would lock me in, and did not allow me to carry a phone or use his.”
Zainab, 24, got divorced from her abusive husband two months ago, after she had filed a case against him in Sharia court in return for giving up her rights in full, “He used the issue of not being able to get pregnant as an excuse for the beatings, even though the problem, according to what the doctors told us, is only psychological. Every month, when he finds out that I am on my period, he beats me on the pretext that he cannot live without children, and on normal days he would only hit me on the head, lest I be pregnant.”
Zainab asserts that her husband’s violence increased during the complete lockdown, “because he stayed at home for three months with no work, and the financial situation worsened. Not a day would pass without him hurting me, claiming that he is bothered and upset, and that I had to bear with him.”
UN reports, along with other reports issued by local organizations, indicate an increase in domestic violence in Lebanon during the past year, especially those against women. Many cases of violence to which women and Syrian children living in Lebanon fell victim, have been documented, with some cases reaching murder.
A Fragile Situation
“When it comes to women in general - both Lebanese and Syrians - their situation is fragile. They bear the burdens of economic pressure and the lockdown from 2020 until now. In addition to the Coronavirus, the economic situation has become an additional cause for further pressure and violence,” states Jihane Isseid, Senior Technical Coordinator at the “ABAAD” organization for achieving gender equality, in an interview with Raseef22.
Since 2011, Nahla (pseudonym) has been subjected to violence at the hands of her husband, whom she had fled from Syria to Lebanon with. Every time he would threaten her by saying, “Either you give up your demands, or you go to your parents’ house and get divorced.”
“We had difficulty gaining access to women facing violence. With men staying at home, women weren’t able to freely communicating by phone; It's usually men who carry the family phone, and so they have no means to ask for help”
Nahla, 29, tells Raseef22, “Both the physical and verbal violence significantly increased during the complete lockdown. The reason was that my husband had stopped working and stayed home, so his interference into every detail of my day increased, from cooking and cleaning, to raising the children. In addition, our living conditions became very bad, and our unpaid rent built up for an entire year, placing a considerable strain on us that we had to have my son quit school because of the bus fare.
When I worked in a sewing workshop, my husband kept verbally abusing me, because he did not want me to work, and I had to listen to his commands. He forced me to quit after two months had passed because he kept threatening me with divorce.”
She adds, “My husband sees himself as a victim, and that he is the only one suffering, and that I had to put up with his reactions.”
Nahla did not turn to any organization for help, despite having knowledge of the services they provide, and having attended a number of support sessions in the “KAFA” and “Women Now” NGOs. “I don’t want to get divorced. My parents are old, sick, and live in one room in the refugee camp. I have three children, and so I cannot go live with them. As for asking for help and protection, my husband will not accept the intervention of an organization. On the contrary, his behavior will worsen. Besides, I do not want to leave my children to be raised by him, or let him teach them violence against me.”
Children Under the Hammer of Abuse
Violence is not limited to women only. Children have their share of it too.
Kawthar Shaaban, 23, tells us about her 10-month marriage and the divorce she got two and a half years after filing a lawsuit against her abusive husband.
“I was subjected to all kinds of physical, psychological and verbal violence. During my pregnancy, in the fifth month, he brought his ex-wife to our house to have sex with her, without taking my feelings into account. The day before he had struck me with a belt on my back and my entire body, and I almost miscarried the baby.”
She continues, “From the very start of our marriage, he locks the door on me, and I am not allowed to contact my family. When he once found out that I had communicated with my mother through the window, he cursed at me, and called his mother to tell her that he did not want me. She told him that as long as I was pregnant with a boy, he should leave me with him.”
Kawthar ran away from home, to give birth to her child at her parents’ home. She recounts, “I pursued him in court for child support, and I only got it twice at the police station after threatening him with imprisonment.”
Her child was also severely beaten by his father during the lockdown. “He took him for one quarter of an hour, only to come back having beaten him across his face, ears, and neck.”
Kawthar filed a complaint against her husband with the help of an organization that covered the costs of the medical examiner’s report. But it was not that simple, since many obstacles stand in the way of women who wish to report violence, according to what field and social activist Latifa Shaaban tells us.
“I don’t want to get divorced. I have three children and can't live with my parents. As for asking for help and protection, my husband won't accept an organization's intervention. I also don't want him to raise my children and make them resent me”
Shaaban tells Raseef22, “I provide women with ways to communicate with organizations such as KAFA and ABAAD, but I do not force any of them into taking any steps, since the organizations refuse to communicate with anyone other than the woman in question.”
Shaaban stresses that organizations are not always present to meet their needs, even the essential ones. It may take a few days due to many complications, and she cites the story of Kawthar, whose son was beaten by his father. “When I learned of the story, I told her she needed to file a complaint, and she didn’t have the money to get a medical examiner’s report. We contacted an organization, but we did not get a quick response, even though the case could not wait, since the bruises would fade with time. I borrowed the needed amount, so that the organization would cover the costs and pay the debt after a while had passed.”
Manal Chakhchiro, a social worker at the Women Now organization, agrees with Shaaban, telling Raseef22 that networking and cooperation with NGOs are still tentative, and there is no quick response, even when there are urgent needs and requirements. “We refer battered women, either within our institution or outside it to KAFA and ABAAD. Sometimes the response is slow, and sometimes this has consequences. For example, organizations do not help women survivors of violence except after contacting the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, and the women in this case usually back down from their request out of fear.
Jihane Isseid explains that the lack of speed when it comes to providing services to abused women is a result of a delay in the legal process. During the general lockdown, for instance, the courts were not operating, until the Public Prosecution developed a plan to serve cases, “and this is beyond the scope of our ability,” she says, noting that most organizations worked on plans to provide services without being affected by the pandemic, such as training social workers to provide counseling over the phone.
Haddad agrees, and says, “There are many obstacles in the legal process. Religious courts closed their doors, and even after resuming their work, we still had the issue of road closures, lawyers going on strike, and the lack of fuel for cars. The delay is due to the exceptional situation in the country, and intervening to protect abused women is our top priority.”
She adds, “Services are provided equally, and what may differentiate cases is the degree of risk to the woman. We intervene free from any affiliations or relations, and we deal with the situation in complete secrecy.”
The KAFA organization provides a set of services that Haddad lists. They include social, legal, and psychological services, as well as providing a safe center for women, and developing a plan of action according to their needs. If they need work, legal intervention, psychological intervention, legal follow-up in all types of courts, and if they need to go to a shelter, they are referred to the proper location.
Any woman can call the 24-hour hotline at 03018019.
“There are obstacles in the legal process due to Lebanon’s exceptional situation. Religious courts closed their doors, we have road closures, lawyers on strike, and no gasoline for cars. Intervening to protect abused women is a priority”
As for ABAAD, Isseid lists its services, which include psychological and social support services, counseling and guidance, raising awareness of rights, cultural and recreational activities, networking with the local community for any project that a woman seeks to work on, and the service of providing safe shelter for survivors of violence.
In addition to services dedicated for helping women, there is a men’s center that provides psychological support to those who have violent behavioral patterns in order to learn to manage them.
The secure line to receive all calls is 81788178, and the secure line of the shelter center is 76060602.
As for the services of the Women Now organization, Chakhchiro says they comprise psychological support for women, therapy, raising awareness, cultural empowerment, and training courses, in addition to temporary aid and assistance to solve financial problems.
All those we spoke to, from activists, to social workers and victimized women, unanimously agree that Syrian refugee women in Lebanon today are at risk of continuous and increasing violence. Most also suffer from a lack of knowledge of their rights, an inability to gain access to support, along with a fear of turning to security forces for help, due to most not having residency permits and identification papers. These are all reasons that play a role in firmly stifling and suffocating them.
Despite the efforts made by the concerned organizations, women still need access to quick, emergency services, and intensive sessions inside their refugee camps and places of residence, to find ways to escape the nightmare of domestic violence - perhaps that they may one day reach safety.
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