Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Pandemic in the MENA Region, a Hardship But Also an Opportunity for Women

Domestic violence mena
Palestinian women wearing protective masks due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic fill crates with dates during the annual harvest season in a palm grove in Deir al-Balah in the central of Gaza Strip on October 1, 2020. Photo: MOHAMMED ABED / AFP

By: Florence Massena

Covid-19 changed the life of almost everyone on the planet in a matter of months, and affected vulnerable people the most through economic hardship. For women, it has been doubled with a rise of domestic violence. And for women living in countries where gender inequalities are very present, like in the MENA region, the situation has significantly worsened, despite new opportunities opening up to them.

The outbreak of the pandemic has revealed the internal fractures of society, but also put women on the front lines while they lost in autonomy, safety and economical independence. The Arab Barometer published a survey in December 2020, estimating that “women bear a disproportional share of the job cuts” in the MENA region, 8% points more than men in Morocco and 4 in Algeria and Tunisia. The pandemic has also affected the social lives of women: “The COVID-related health scare, the imposed lockdown, school closures, and the increased demands of the family and home, which are predominantly women’s responsibilities in MENA, have taken a heavy toll on Arab women.” It also dramatically affected their safety, with women forced for example to stay in a violent relationship or not being able to seek help: “The highest rate of perceived increase in abuse of or violence against women is in Tunisia (63%), followed by Algeria and Morocco (41%, respectively), while the perceived increase of gender-based violence in Jordan is 27%, and in Lebanon is 20%.”

“What was clear during the pandemic is that, like every other disaster, it doesn’t affect people in the same way”, Lina Abou Habib, interim director of the Asfari Institute at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, told Fanack. “Simply because people are positioned differently in terms of power, resources, abilities to take decision. The pandemic has simply exacerbated inequalities that are already there. Women organizations, scholars and researchers have documented that the pandemic had a dramatic effect on women and girls.”

Abou Habib emphasized notably on gender-based violence and domestic violence, taking the example of her country Lebanon, saying that there were six cases of women killed in one month in April 2020, the first month of lockdown, essentially by husbands. In this report by Lebanese feminist organization Kafa is highlighted the responsibility of being stuck at home in the rise of violence: “During the month of April, Kafa’s hotline received 105 new cases, versus 75 during March. Women calling for the first time reported acts of violence that had been taking place for a while but became more intense or more frequent due to the aggressor’s presence at home 24/7.” It is also the case of migrant domestic workers working in the MENA region and who often have no recourse in case of abuse in ordinary times, let alone in such a crisis moment.

Women in the MENA region are also the main providers of care work, a position that put higher levels of stress on them. According to the OECD, “MENA women are at the core of the health emergency response as they make up the majority of workers in the healthcare and social services sector across the region, thus exposing them to greater risks of contracting the virus”. It also affects them at home with unpaid care work such as home schooling and taking care of sick and/or old relatives. “This is the work they have to do for others, without recognition, being given any value, they have to be able to juggle in their work-life balance”, Abou Habib said. “It increased exponentially with the pandemic. Not only are most of family members always at home, women also have to follow up with health related guidelines to know and safeguard their family against harm.”

In the long list of how the pandemic has affected women in the MENA region, it is also worth mentioning the big drop out of girls from schools, which amplifies child marriage phenomenon in some countries, the closing of religious family courts, which prevents any affair such as divorce from taking place, and the pressure on already stigmatized communities such as the queer community, sex workers, domestic workers, female refugees, who often have nowhere to go for help in societies that rejects them in majority. For example in Lebanon, women domestic workers were thrown in the streets when their employers couldn’t afford to even feed them anymore, after weeks and sometimes months of unpaid work.

“It basically tells the world what we are, who we are and what we’re capable of doing”, Abou-Habib commented. “In Tunisia, according to colleagues in a LGBTQ organization called “We exist”, they worked really hard to support sex workers who lost their livelihoods, who were denied any kind of aid, stigmatized, and in dire need of basic supply, menstrual hygiene, and so on. What I mean is that the pandemic showed the worst of our mind sets and of what our patriarchal societies can do, which is further oppress people who are already oppressed.”

But despite gloom looking situations, opportunities could rise for women and girls if governments were ready to invest in them. For example, Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank said, “to boost growth, hire more women”. Countries in the MENA region could benefit from reducing gender disparities. In 2014, Teignier and Cuberes estimated that Egypt’s gross domestic product (GDP) could be 29% higher with the elimination of the economic gender gap, the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) by 31%, Lebanon’s by 28%, and Iran’s by 32%. In other words, reducing inequalities could largely help economies at risk, and it could be done by eliminating barriers preventing women from accessing jobs and the glass ceiling, and investing in new fields. According to Reuters, digital marketing, e-commerce and online customer support could be the next domains for women to work in the MENA region. A study published in September 2020 by McKinsey showed that it could lead to doubling job opportunities for women in the region by 2030.

This is not the lonely light at the end of the tunnel for women and girls. “This was a time [since the beginning of the pandemic] for amazing organizing by women and feminist organizations, amazing creative thinking, using this moment not only to help, but also to amplify lobbying”, Abou Habib added. “What they have done and still doing in the region is amplifying the voices of women, their needs and demands for gender equality. By gathering data, spreading stories, narratives and voices, by reminding all of us that violence against women, that care work, that patriarchy, are issues. In a way, the pandemic has strengthened feminist mobilization. That’s why I’m kind of hopeful.”

In the light of terrible consequences for women and girls in the MENA region, the pandemic has given momentum for organizations to press on more governmental action and economical changes that could lead, if taken into account, to better societies for all.

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