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Tackling a “Shadow Pandemic” of Gender-Based Violence

Woman holding a young child and a sign
Women from Kayan Feminist Organization call for end to gender-based violence during a 16-day campaign in Yaffet Al-Nasreh, on November 25, 2019. © Kayan Feminist Organization

One might think that the COVID-19 pandemic would bring partners and families closer together, but global indicators on gender-based violence tell a far darker story. Domestic violence shot up exponentially around the world in 2020 and 2021, leading the United Nations to label it the “shadow pandemic.” Early findings from a global UN Women assessment suggest that gender-based violence has significantly increased because of COVID-19.

Prior to the pandemic, the UN had estimated that one in three women worldwide experienced physical or sexual violence over the course of their lives, most often at the hands of an intimate partner—a bitter reality perpetuated by endemic power hierarchies and gender inequality. Further stress triggered by lockdowns, income loss, and social isolation during the pandemic pushed more men predisposed to violence to abuse—or intensify the abuse of—partners trapped with them behind closed doors.

Mariam Zemouri, president of the Israr Coalition—a Moroccan women’s rights network and partner of Open Society—says calls to the organization’s hotlines to report incidents of domestic violence spiked during lockdowns. 

“Women were reporting all sorts of violence—physical, sexual, psychological. Some were being beaten and others even denied food and money by their partners,” says Zemouri, echoing the accounts of many women’s organizations around the world. “We also received reports of new types of violence previously not reported including sextortion. As more girls and women were plugged into the internet during lockdowns, some men threatened to post compromising photos of them unless they paid them money.”

Israr (an Arabic word meaning “determination”) is a coalition comprising four women’s rights organizations and a council of 30 other women’s rights groups providing diverse assistance to women and pushing for gender policy reforms. Among its activities, Israr offers legal and psychological support to victims of gender-based violence. The decade-long advocacy efforts of the coalition’s members were instrumental to the passing of a law in Morocco in 2018 that criminalized domestic violence and provided new protections for survivors, although implementation has faced hurdles, including cultural pressure on women to reconcile with their abusers to keep the family together. Israr continues to use the data it collects from victims’ experiences to advocate for further improvements in this law and other relevant policies.

During the pandemic, Israr could no longer host battered women at its nationwide centers.

“We had to quickly digitalize our work,” explains Halima Olami, a founding member of Israr. “We added our phone numbers to our website and connected with women through phone calls and apps like WhatsApp, Zoom, and Google Meet.”

Israr’s staff accompanied women to police stations, where authorities issued warnings to the perpetrators and gave women numbers to call should violence reoccur. In cases where medical reports showed severe physical injury of the woman, the coalition took legal action. Israr’s lawyers secured a one-and-a-half-year prison sentence for one abuser and a two-year sentence for another. The coalition’s swift transformation to digital assistance and broad regional reach allowed members to help hundreds of women throughout the pandemic.

Rafah Anabtawi, director of Kayan, a Palestinian feminist organization based in Haifa (whose name means “existence” in Arabic), recounts similar experiences. Kayan, a partner of Open Society, was set up in 1998 by activists and feminists undertaking grassroots work to advance the status of women who are part of the Palestinian minority in Israel.

According to Anabtawi, region-specific restrictive social norms exacerbate the challenges faced by female Palestinian Citizens of Israel, as does their second-class political status. She provided the example of a Palestinian girl in her twenties living with her family in a conservative rural Palestinian locality who was beaten by her brother and had her car keys confiscated for smoking, which in her community is frowned upon as a transgressive act for a woman. She filed a case with the Israeli police, but instead of helping her, they contacted her brother to inform him that she complained.

“This is a classic case that shows the additional layers of obstacles we face as a female Palestinian minority in Israel. Firstly, Israeli police forces, like most security forces elsewhere, are patriarchal,” said Anabtawi. “Secondly, some of the Israeli policemen have personal contacts and mutual interests with Palestinian male citizens so they don’t always act on the cases reported. Thirdly, cultural relativism is rife where Arab human rights are concerned. It’s often seen that Arab women are undeserving of the same rights as their counterparts elsewhere. There is systematic discrimination from the Israeli authorities.”

As a recent study by Kayan on femicide in the Palestinian Citizens of Israel community shows, police negligence and socioeconomic marginalization are among the key factors impacting the rise of crime rates in Arab communities in Israel, including femicide, the most extreme form of violence against women. Yet, despite these enormous challenges, Kayan persevered throughout the pandemic by digitalizing its work to help victims. The organization also collaborated with groups in the West Bank and Gaza supporting Palestinian women at large to break the silence against perpetrators. Kayan launched campaigns to raise awareness through radio spots and social media (and shared relevant statistics in Arabic, as most of the official statistics were in Hebrew).

With support from Open Society, Kayan formed a feminist coalition called Fada (the Arabic acronym for “Palestinian Women against Violence”) to counter gender-based violence as part of the pandemic response. The coalition comprises 21 Palestinian feminist human rights organizations operating in the 1948 territories, West Bank, and Gaza, and brings Palestinian feminists together to share and learn from each other and coordinate their efforts.

Kayan’s work has helped some men transcend their own patriarchal conditioning. Anabtawi tells of a father who contacted the organization out of fear he would harm his daughter in anger at her reputation in their conservative community for her late-night outings. Through meetings back and forth with the father and daughter, they were able to resolve the matter and prevent potential violence.

Open Society’s partnership with Israr and Kayan is part of its broader support to boost feminist responses to COVID-19 across the Middle East and North Africa region, as well as support to global women’s rights at large. Open Society has nearly tripled its funding to gender justice issues over the next five years, including a $100 million commitment to strengthen feminist-led movements and increase their leadership across a range of sectors. There can be no progress in our world without the attainment of gender justice and much safer environments for women and girls everywhere.

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