A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
Women around the world have long been suffered from psychological, verbal, physical and sexual violence carried out against them by men in their homes and within their wider families. With the global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic violence has increased during the lockdowns and curfews imposed by governments. Dr. Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund, has stated that one in three women around the world experience violence by men, and that the home quarantine and complete lockdowns imposed by most countries will increase these numbers in an intense and accelerated manner.In Yemen, a country whose population has been decimated by an ongoing brutal war for the past six years, the effects of the war have been compounded by the pandemic, increasing the likelihood that women and children will be subject to various forms of domestic violence. Many of the women that we have met have said that they have suffered from an increase in violence against them by the men in their families, a phenomenon that has had a negative effect on their mental and physical health and intensified their constant feeling of insecurity.
The closure of work, schools and universities
The authorities in Sana’a and Aden have implemented precautionary measures to deal with the pandemic. These include closing down land crossings and airports, decreasing the number of employees in the public and private sectors, and shutting down universities, schools and public parks. As a consequence, this has reduced the number of activities that people can participate in, leading them to remain at home for long periods. Mona al-Dhabhani, a psychiatrist, said that feelings of boredom for extended periods, and the inability to fill free time with constructive activities, can lead to people losing the meaning and value of life. These feelings can lead to depression and anxiety, especially because of the difficult economic conditions and income loss as a large number of employees and laborers in Yemen are paid based on their work hours. In many cases, husbands have used the lack of food security as a justification for the use of violence against their wives, as was the case with Amal, who experienced suffering twice over – from hunger and from violence from her husband. Amal says: “We went through a suffocating economic crisis, during which we were unable to provide for our basic needs, other than a small amount of food. My husband, however, increased our suffering, as he is always yelling and accusing me of neglect, to the extent that he would severely beat me if I do not provide food.”
At the same time, children no longer go to school or participate in recreational activities outside of their homes, depriving them of opportunities to direct their energy in a healthy and productive manner. They have been forced to play at home, causing chaos in many cases. This occurred at a time when one or both parents had stopped working, increasing friction between family members, especially between fathers and children who are around each other for long hours. Um Ala’a was among the women who were forced, along with her husband, to take time off work. Her husband could not stand the mischief caused by the four children remaining at home all day, and he would make her beat the children, verbally assaulting her if she refused to do so. All of this caused psychological damage to her and her children.
The lockdown has created a fertile environment for harmful masculine practices that aim to impose the authority of brothers over their sisters through violent actions that include verbal and physical assault, with nothing being done by the mothers or fathers to protect their daughters. One example of these experiences was given by Ahlam, a student who had to remain at home after her university was closed. This increased the psychological, verbal and physicals assaults on Ahlam by her brother, but her mother constantly made excuses for him, saying that he was going through a difficult time because he was no longer working.
Family disputes intensified by quarantine
Although many married couples would once have welcomed a break that would give them the time and space to deal with their personal problems, this mandatory break in the midst of these extraordinary circumstances has instead brought disputes to the surface, rather than allowing them to be resolved. On the one hand, the break from work at a time of limited opportunities to make a living, lack of food security, and increasing life pressures – problems that have only been compounded due to the war and the pandemic – has led to homes becoming a fertile environment for violence. On the other hand, as family counselor Altaf al-Ahdal noted, the excessive preventative measures have had a role in increasing the intensity of family disputes. For example, if one of the spouses, or a family member, does not adhere to preventative measures to combat the virus, this causes terror, anxiety and disputes.
Some wives objected to their husbands’ carelessness in terms of adhering to quarantine rules, and this caused disputes that turned violent. Samah, for example, tells us that her husband stopped working, but he did not remain at home: he continued to go out with his friends and to chew qat. When Samah tried to discuss the matter with him, bringing up the danger of his actions to his health and the health of their family, he accused her of being crazy and paranoid. He also used verbal and physical violence against her, continuing to ignore the quaranting.
Safe spaces and a counseling hotline
In light of this pandemic, it has become mandatory for women and girls to remain at home with the men of the family for extended periods, unable to receive emotional support from those close to them or from the entities responsible for providing psychological care in safe spaces that some women resort to. The services provided to victims of violence by organizations working in this field have been curbed due to the spread of the coronavirus, making it difficult for women to access much-needed psychological support. Many safe spaces focused on providing support to women in Yemen were closed at the beginning of the pandemic in Yemen in March 2020.
After these spaces reopened in June 2020, adhering to social distancing guidelines, one run by the Deem Organization for Development in Al Hawban in the Taiz governorate received more than 200 women who had experienced violence during the lockdown. Psychological support and outreach sessions were provided to them, in addition to training for 35 women in handicrafts and other productive skills. A majority of the women who resorted to the safe spaces were more at risk of violence by their husbands or other male relatives, who had taken out their anger at losing their sources of income and having to stay at home for long periods through violent and controlling actions against women. This was noticed by the manager of the safe space in al-Hawban, Dhikra al-Sabri.
In the same context, the 136 line, a hotline specializing in domestic violence complaints and providing psychological counseling from the Family Counseling and Development Foundation, has seen a noticeable increase in the number of calls received from abused women who are requesting psychological counseling. This can play a large role in alleviating the pressure and psychological suffering resulting from violence.
An alarm bell around the world
Globally, there are 243 million recorded cases of women and girls aged 15 to 49 who were subjected to physical or sexual violence by their partners. This figure was recorded before the spread of COVID-19, which has increased the severity of gender-based violence, one of the most dangerous violations of human rights.With the continued threat from this pandemic, it is probable that the severity of violence against women around the world will increase. The violence faced by women of all age groups and professional, social and economic statuses is a real threat to their lives and all aspects of their psychological and physical health and well-being. All countries must make dealing with these violations one of their priorities and must be serious in implementing the laws made to deal with them. In a country like Yemen, which is suffering from economic and social fragility as a result of the conflict, the relevant entities, especially in civil society, must work to strengthen their capacity and ability to provide the necessary protection and solutions for women who are subject to violence or who are in situations that increase the risk of being subject to violence of any form.
Rania Abdullah is a Yemeni journalist and television show creator, who has been the drafting secretary of the Family and Development Magazine since 2006.