MENA: Gender-based violence continues to devastate lives of women across region

Across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), despite some limited reforms, women continue to face entrenched discrimination and daily violence amid the abject failure of governments to stamp out arbitrary arrests, abductions, assassinations, so-called “honour” killings and other forms of gender-based violence, said Amnesty International, marking International Women’s Day.

Most recently, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic led to some countries reporting a rise in cases of domestic violence and calls to helplines due to prolonged confinement at home during lockdowns and curfews.  

“Across MENA, many women and girls’ lives continue to be blighted by the daily reality of violence in the home or in the street.  Gender-based violence is already a pervasive human rights concern in MENA and the spike in domestic violence during COVID-19 lockdowns has had catastrophic consequences,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“In recent years, while women’s rights defenders across the region have won important battles that brought limited advances in women’s rights, in particular through legislative reforms repealing discriminatory laws, this progress has been overshadowed by governments either committing or at the very least acquiescing to gender-based violence that continues to have a devastating impact on women’s lives.”

Across MENA, many women and girls’ lives continue to be blighted by the daily reality of violence in the home or in the street.

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International

The COVID-19 pandemic during 2020 has heightened the already grave risks widely faced by women across the region, with women’s rights organizations, helplines and shelters for survivors of domestic violence in some MENA countries including Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia reporting an increase in calls for support or recording a rise in cases of gender-based violence.

In Algeria, at least 39 cases of murder or “intentional assault and battery” resulting in death were recorded by the Centre of Information on the Rights of Women and Children during the COVID-19 lockdown, with women’s rights groups warning that the true number of cases is likely to be higher.

Gender-based violence remains rampant

In recent years several MENA countries have made limited advances on women’s rights at a legislative and institutional level. These include long overdue reforms to Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system and the lifting of the ban on women drivers, establishing a complaints mechanism for survivors of domestic violence in Tunisia and a shelter for women at risk of so-called “honour crimes” in Jordan.

Across the Maghreb, legal provisions to combat violence against women have been introduced – including a landmark 2017 law in Tunisia to protect women from all forms of gender-based violence.

Yet these gains have been overshadowed by continuing violence and discrimination women face, particularly in matters of marriage, inheritance and child custody, and have been undermined by weak implementation of reforms and continued denial of women’s agency

So-called “honour” killings have continued to be recorded in Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait and Palestinian communities in Israel and Palestine, where authorities have failed to take action to prosecute perpetrators or address the underlying discriminatory laws or gender norms which allow such violence to thrive. In several countries, women human rights defenders have faced threats – including threats of rape – intimidation, travel bans or even violent attacks and killings, by state and non-state actors seeking to silence them.  

In Libya, women and girls have faced physical assault, abductions assassination and sexual violence as well as smear campaigns and online abuse at the hands of militias and armed groups. Most recently in November 2020, Libyan lawyer Hanan al-Barassi was shot dead in Benghazi after criticizing corruption of individuals affiliated to armed groups in Eastern Libya.

Similarly, in Iraq, gunmen shot dead Reham Yacoub, an activist known for organizing local protests in Basra in August 2020.

In Egypt, an online campaign against sexual harassment and violence by young feminists led to the arrest of several men accused of rape in August 2020. Yet despite the Egyptian authorities’ approval of a legal provision allowing prosecutors to grant anonymity to survivors of sexual violence, survivors and witnesses who testified in such cases or spoke out about sexual violence have continued to face arrest and prosecution.

In 2020, at least nine female social media influencers were prosecuted on charges of “violating family principles” for videos posted on TikTok. pro-government media outlets have also engaged in a vicious smear campaign against women survivors of sexual violence and their supporters.

In Iran, “morality” police continue to enforce discriminatory and degrading forced veiling laws subjecting women and girls to daily harassment and violent attacks.

Survivors’ rights flouted

Women who come forward to report abuse face serious obstacles to accessing justice.  In Libya they risk arrest for “adultery” and in the case of refugees and migrants, survivors don’t dare approach police fearing arrest and deportation. Women in Jordan have reported fearing being detained in shelters for reporting violence committed against them. Despite reforms, Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system continues to enable male guardians to perpetuate violence against women and fails to protect them from sexual and physical violence. For example, women who suffer domestic violence continue to need a male guardian’s permission to leave shelters.

While many countries have repealed legal provisions enabling rapists to escape prosecution by marrying their victim the law persists in a number of MENA countries.

“Inadequate government action to protect women from gender-based violence and address impunity has long perpetuated this form of abuse.  As a first step, authorities must publicly condemn all forms of gender-based violence and dismantle discriminatory structures that facilitate such abuse – such as male guardianship,” said Heba Morayef. 

They must also ensure that the rights of survivors are protected, that survivors can safely access justice and that perpetrators are held to account. Survivors must be able to access adequate shelter, psycho-social support as well as legal and other services.”