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 associated with 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 the man who became her husband, who is unemployed and takes ‘captagon’ pills (a type of controlled drug that is based on amphetamines).
“My ex-husband used to hit me with whatever he could lay his hands on... sometimes it would be even 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... I prefer to be silent because any dialogue between us used to end with screaming, beating and him locking me up at home.”
Maryam separated from her husband through a ‘verbal divorce’, and moved with her baby into her mother's crowded house, where her brother, his wife and his three children also lived. Under stifling economic conditions, Maryam’s brother insisted that she abandon her daughter leaving her with her abusive father, threatening to sell her baby to a childless family. Maryam was powerless, her marital disputes dragged on, allowing the deadline to register her child with social services to lapse.
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.
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 the lockdown. Additionally, the loss of a normal work routine and the deteriorating political situation in the country have resulted in an increased level of tension, stress, hostility and consequently, a readiness to resort to violence.
As a result of economic isolation (if the man loses his job or had to work from home), this person loses his sense of empowerment rooted in a false sense of "masculinity" derived form cultural and social upbringing. Al-Amin explains how "violence may take two paths, depending on the person’s psychological construct; this violence is directed inwardly and translate into helplessness, inferiority and underrating oneself, or it is directed externally towards the closest person, in this case, his wife."
Rania* (her name has been changed for insuring the victim’s anonymity), was subjected to all sorts of violence by her husband. But she remained silent; observing customs, traditions and the need to be "patient", as her mother taught her.
She explains how her husband’s daily journey to work or anywhere else was like a shot of “morphine” that allowed her to survive temporarily. But the prolonged lockdown contributed to the intensification of the violence. Rania soon realised that she, as well as other women in her position, should not remain silent to injustice. She consequently turned to the ‘Kafa’ (enough) association in search of psychological and social support, as well as legal advice.
As society in Lebanon fails to protect women, the legal system should serve as a refuge for victims of domestic violence. But facts on the ground point to legal failures that exacerbated domestic abuse specially during the pandemic.
- Before this law was passed, there was no specific legislation on domestic violence, and crimes associated with domestic violence were treated as “regular crimes”.
- The law also recognizes the need to protect and legally help women who have been previously subjected to violence.
- A provision allowing women to obtain protection orders againt 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 stations to address complaints of domestic abuse.
This legislation however, had its loopholes. For example, marital rape was not criminalized, and a husband or father’s murder of his wife or daughter is often classified as part of ‘honour crimes’.
University Professor and Researcher at the Center for Legal Data, Dr. Hadiah Al-Shami, confirms that the prevalence of domestic crimes during the pandemic are mostly due to the absence of deterrence and preventative measures. The closure of courts for a prolonged period of time allowed abusers or aggressors to feel as though they would not be held accountable. This lack of sanction, coupled with the absence of fear regarding legal action allowed the abusers to freely use 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 official at the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, who requested anonymity as he is not authorised to speak with the media, 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 with their wives. Consequently, this hidden violence, which cannot be detected or investigated unless reported, increased.”
The official added that the security forces would immediately respond to any complaint as soon as it 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, the abuser would be made to sign an undertaking to refrain from further violence 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,” the official said.
A female 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 for protection, or as soon as she communicates with the security forces through 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 her testimony. Currently, due to the noticeable increase in domestic violence, the Public Prosecution office acts immediately despite the lawyers absence or the court closures in pandemic times. In addition, the prosecution has often ordered to arrest the aggressor or perpetrator as many of my files show”, she added.
The aforementioned procedures were not properly followed during the earlier stages of the lockdown due to the strict procedure that had forced the courts to shut for a long period of time. Later, the Attorney General’s amended that by publishing new guidelines for the public prosecution offices’ operations during lockdown. This decision was passed in mid-April and was 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 stations 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, including setting up video calls.
More than 6500 employees 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 on the ground, as 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, 21450 workers left the labor market with the onset of COVID-19 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 ($1983 as per exchange rates of the day when the investigation was prepared) .
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 1510 LBP to each dollar, yet according to the Lebanese central bank, it is set at 3800 LBP for each dollar. In the black market it exceeds 8500 LBP and it is likely to continue to increase.
Laila* (her name has been changed for insuring the victim’s anonymity), 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 was issued with an undertaking by her husband that he would refrain from inflicting any physical harm on her. However, things have not changed. Laila sees that her situation is the result of "misfortune and lack of money.”
Laila is one of many who have settled for the painful option to stay next to her children in their husband's house, while waiting for conditions to change for the better.
Dr. Anisa Al-Amin says that violence is an essential and innate component of human nature, which is tamed by culture and education. External factors may generate characteristics which eventually perpetuate violent tendencies. In this case the personal dimension intersects with that of the political and national situation.
Referring to a recent crime that shook Lebanon, where a citizen slaughtered his wife, his brother, two Lebanese and five Syrians, Al-Amin draws on her theory of what she calls "floating anxiety”.
This anxiety, she says, is perpetuated by Lebanon’s ongoing political tension and results in a hostile and distressful 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 his or her 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 affairs, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka’s, “it is a pandemic of a hidden nature.”