Violence against women is a global issue but has risen in the Middle East in recent years and incurred costs that significantly affect society at large. Figures indicate that gender-based violence is increasing with new forms of attacks.
“Violence against women is equivalent to violation of human rights. It remains under many forms in the Arab region, including intimate partner violence, gender-related killings and other forms that are particular to this region, such as early forced marriages and temporary marriages, sexual harassment and female genital mutilation,” said Blerta Aliko, deputy regional director of Arab states at UN Women.
“An estimated 30% of ever-partnered women in the Middle East and North Africa region have experienced physical violence by intimate partners at some point in their lives, while one in seven girls is married as a child with the highest rates in Mauritania, Sudan and the Yemen,” Aliko said at a panel discussion in Beirut on the cost of violence against women in the Arab region.
“While 87% of women and girls aged between 15 and 49 have undergone FGM (female genital mutilation) in Egypt and Sudan, an estimated 19% have experienced the same form of violence in Yemen and 8% in Iraq since 2015.”
Although complete data on the prevalence of violence are lacking in the region, largely due to under-reporting of violence within marriage particularly, some estimates were available.
“In Egypt, the prevalence of domestic violence did not change over two decades with nearly one-third of married women experiencing a form of physical violence by their husbands. In Morocco, a national survey estimated the prevalence of violence at 62% with nearly 9% of sexual violence, while in Jordan, 44% of women who have been married at some point in their lives have experienced physical violence at least once since age 15, and 9% reported experiencing sexual violence,” Aliko said.
Conflict and violence sweeping the Middle East have increased the risks of violence against women, including striking forms of sexual violence. Syrian women refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq have reported high rates of domestic violence, sexual harassment and early and forced marriages. Similar trends were observed in Yemen and Libya, the United Nations said.
Gender-based violence has a direct and devastating effect on society and constitutes an impediment to progress, development and democracy, experts said. Estimation of the cost of the violence is viewed as an important tool to bring about constitutional reform and push forward for implementing laws and enforcement, said Mehrinaz el-Awady, director of the ESCWA Centre for Women.
“Our region has the highest rate of violence against women but there is an absence of the estimation of the cost of such violence,” Awady said, noting that Egypt was the only Arab country to do an estimation, which was calculated at $11.8 billion.
“There are serious consequences… on the victims and on the family, the children and the economy. The cost going into services for the victims and the lost productivity could have been directed into projects and other activities that benefit everyone in the society,” Awady added.
With the exceptions of Somalia and Sudan, all Arab League countries have signed and ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). However, the ratification did not have a concrete effect on the status of women in the region because many countries had reservations about the core provisions of the convention and did not ratify the optional protocol.
Awady said progress in addressing violence against women is largely fragmented. “One finds countries that have done constitutional reform — like Egypt and Tunisia — but this has not been transformed into law. Or, if there is a law, there is no strategy and if there is a strategy, there is no budget. So none of the Arab countries until now do have a comprehensive framework.”
The crises in the region, compounded with the rise in Muslim extremism and a push in some “Arab spring” countries for adherence to Islamic law have threatened women’s aspirations and increased risks of violence against women, the experts said.
In Iraq, forced genital mutilation and forced early marriages returned as a practice after 2003, a trend that reappeared with the rise of religious extremism.
“These are forms of violence that have existed, for example in Syria, even before the crisis but they have exacerbated significantly with displacement as a negative coping mechanism for economic and protection purposes… The family members deemed it is much more reasonable to marry off girls than keeping them in camp settings where there could be other forms of violence,” Aliko said.
Under-reporting of spousal violence is common because of shame, fear of retaliation, lack of information about legal rights, lack of confidence in, or fear of, the legal system and the legal costs involved, the experts said.
“That is why we join forces to advocate for the need for the estimation of [violence against women] and to have a more effective policy reform,” Awady said.
Samar Kadi is the Arab Weekly society and travel section editor.
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