For Arab women and girls, the crisis is just beginning

The coronavirus presents an opportunity to help women overcome daily social injustices, but only if we take it.

Women and girls opinion/Lina AbiRafeh
Women shop at a market wearing protective face masks amid concerns over COVID-19 in Cairo, Egypt on April 12, 2020 [Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters]

The current pandemic has had an unprecedented global impact – we are all affected by this collective crisis. And yet, the virus and its aftermath will discriminate more strongly against those who were already marginalised, namely women and girls. In the Arab region, where I now work, women were vulnerable before the crisis. And their crisis is just beginning.

I have spent my career as a humanitarian aid worker in insecure environments around the world, supporting women to mitigate the risks they face in those settings – notably as a result of a more hidden global pandemic, violence against women. Everywhere I have worked – from Afghanistan to Mali to Haiti – women and girls suffer more. It does not matter whether this is due to a conflict, a natural disaster or an epidemic.

Already volatile prior to COVID-19 due to socioeconomic instabilities and protracted humanitarian crises, the Arab region is uniquely affected by this global pandemic, with more than 62.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

In the Arab region, nearly half of the female population of 84 million is not connected to the Internet nor has access to a mobile phone. This, coupled with alarming literacy rates – approximately 67 percent of women and 81 percent of men – means that women are disproportionately unable to access accurate information about the virus to help them prepare, respond and survive.

Amid this crisis, and combined with the continuing conflicts and economic collapse, violence against women is increasing. For many women and girls, being quarantined safely is a luxury. Based on anecdotal evidence and reporting by several Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in Lebanon, under lockdown the number of reported cases of violence against women rose by 100 percent during the month of March. 

Similarly, live-in migrant domestic workers (almost always women) are exposed to unique risks stemming from the nature of their jobs. The travel ban and other restrictions further harm their livelihoods and ability to support family members in their countries of origin. Additionally, they cannot leave the house and are therefore working around the clock often without the right to rest. The abuse they suffer – sexual, physical, psychological, economic – is heightened as a result of the additional stress of deteriorating economic conditions and health risks.

Refugees are another disproportionately affected group. Female refugees, in particular, are no strangers to discrimination. Lack of funding due to the pandemic has compromised their survival. Even more than before, refugees are considered a threat by host communities and are shunned due to fears that the virus will spread through the camps, placing the host country at greater risk.

Women in conflict zones face additional risks during this pandemic. In both Syria and Yemen, the healthcare infrastructure has been decimated by years of armed conflict – with 67 attacks on hospitals in Syria in over a year and constant attacks on health facilities and medical personnel in Yemen.

The informal and community-based nature of women’s work in conflict zones also means an inherent lack of financial stability and access to formal, professional roles in society. In Yemen, at least there is momentum and strong organising for feminist peacebuilding and the inclusion of women in official peace talks and conflict mitigation processes.

The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to result in the loss of 1.7 million jobs in the Arab region, including approximately 700,000 jobs held by women. But female participation in the labour market is already weak, with high unemployment among women reaching 19 percent in 2019, compared with 8 percent for men.

Projections indicate that the informal sector will be particularly impacted by the pandemic. In the Arab region, women perform nearly five times as much unpaid care work as men while approximately 61.8 percent of active women work in the informal sector and will, therefore, suffer disproportionately. 

Women are the majority of the world’s healthcare practitioners and family caretakers, performing unpaid labour and exposing themselves to infection in order to care for a sick child, an elderly family member or a needy member of the community.

In Lebanon, 80 percent of nursing staff are female. More than half of these are now working with reduced salaries and longer hours, rather than being properly compensated and protected. In every emergency I have worked in, women are the ones who know who is in need, what they need and how to get it to them. They are the world’s social safety net.

If women are once again left out of leadership roles in the response to the pandemic, the patriarchal consolidation of power in these areas will have devastating effects on women’s rights, equality and autonomy. This requires a robust feminist response, guaranteeing women’s right to information, to healthcare, to choose. Because when others decide for a woman, she faces discrimination and violence. In short, her own life is at risk.

A feminist response to this pandemic must work to undo rather than magnify oppression and the very systems that place women at higher risks in times of crisis, with the recognition that simply existing as a woman is a form of crisis. Simply, a woman’s right to decide must be at the heart of the response to this pandemic.

Life will undoubtedly be different in the aftermath of the pandemic. And, for the majority of women, their challenges do not end when the crisis is resolved. For women and girls, the crisis is just beginning.

In the Arab region, this presents an opportunity to implement feminist policies and ensure that women’s rights organisations and feminist activists have the tools and resources they need to advocate and act on behalf of women and girls.

Centring women in the response will enable the region to better withstand future shocks. In short, when women lead, we all benefit.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.