BEIRUT: Abir, a 35-year-old Lebanese housekeeper, quit her job to take care of her son after rigorous lockdown measures were implemented across the country to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“My son isn’t in school, so who is going to look after him? It’s only me. My husband works so we can have some money. God willing this won’t last long and I can go back to work,” said Abir, who requested that her name be changed to protect her family’s privacy.
Abir’s 11-year-old son has had to stay at home after schools and universities were closed indefinitely in late February to decelerate the outbreak of COVID-19.
While her husband brings in money and continues to work at a local food market, Abir has had to take on most of the responsibilities of childcare for their son.
“Even before, I was mainly the one who looked after [our son], it is what is expected of me and my duty,” Abir said.
A newly released report from U.N. Women Lebanon has highlighted that many Lebanese women will face similar challenges of leaving the workplace because of pressure to take on additional household responsibilities in light of lockdown measures, which could undo years of progress for women’s rights.
While quarantine and isolation policies are critical to curbing a coronavirus outbreak, the report stresses that they make women more vulnerable to unemployment and gender-based violence.
“Women have spent decades and generations ... trying to be seen as leaders within the private sphere as well as leaders in the public sphere. This pandemic has the potential to eradicate that or at least set them back in their efforts to be more equal,” head of U.N. Women’s Lebanon office, Rachel Dore-Weeks, told The Daily star.
As a physical illness, data shows that coronavirus seems to impact women less severely than men. However, although soaring unemployment rates will undoubtedly impact both women and men, in a less obvious way the secondary effects of the pandemic – on domestic violence, employment and unpaid work – are expected to disproportionately impact women in the long term.
UNESCWA estimates that “at least 1.7 million jobs will be lost in the Arab region due to the coronavirus pandemic,” according to the report.
“Unemployment is bad whether it affects men or women, but women are already so far behind that this is going to push them even further behind,” Dore-Weeks explained, adding that women only make up “one-third of the labor force in Lebanon.”
“This pressure is likely to happen as women are taking on all these additional roles of schooling their children, caring for the sick and elderly, making sure their houses are clean and doing all the cooking and cleaning at home,” she said.
More than three-quarters of men support the idea that a woman’s most important role is to care for the household, according to the report.
Numbers from the U.N. also estimate that just over 50 percent of men in Lebanon said they have ever participated in domestic work, compared to almost 90 percent of women.
Lebanon already has one of the highest gender gaps in the world, standing at 145 out of a total of 153 countries according to the Global Gender Gap Report 2020.
“A lot of women are being encouraged to leave the work place and look after children. [For example,] if schools won’t open until September, this will add pressure on women to stay at home even when work resumes,” Dore-Weeks said.
For over a month, the Lebanese government has gradually introduced more stringent lockdown measures since coronavirus was first confirmed in Lebanon on Feb. 21. The country has effectively been placed under lockdown until April 12.
These lockdown measures might force victims and survivors of domestic violence into isolation with their abusers. According to the U.N. report, one in three women in Lebanon said they had experienced gender-based violence.
“We know that there are a large number of women who are already living with their abusive partners and we also know that economic crises and stress generate increased violence, it exacerbates these issues,” Dore-Weeks said.
Before the pandemic hit, “we were already starting to see trends and spikes in domestic violence ... that linked to the economic situation,” she added.
Lebanon has for months been experiencing its worst economic crisis since the end of the 1975-90 Civil War. The coronavirus lockdown has wreaked further havoc on the country's economy. Some estimates put the number of employees who have been laid off since Oct, 17, 2019, at over 100,000.
“Fear, depression, unemployment can increase the level of violence, especially when the violator is used to expressing frustration through verbal and physical violence,” said Rayan Majed, a representative from local women's rights organization KAFA (Enough Violence and Exploitation).
“Now more than ever, we need to look after the most vulnerable in our society. Which means women, children and domestic workers,” Majed said.
Lebanon has more than 250,000 migrant domestic workers. The vast majority of these workers are women contracted under the kafala system, which increases their risk of labor exploitation and trafficking. They have little or no access to social protection or the health services.
Many migrant domestic workers are subjected to violence and abuse by their employers.
Majed said that KAFA and activists across Lebanon are calling on neighbours and communities to report any suspected incidents of such abuse and domestic violence.
“When you are in the same house there’s difficulty for women or domestic workers to call or ask for help themselves,” Majed said.
Citizens can report incidents on the ISF domestic abuse 1745 hotline or KAFA’s 24-hour emergency line 03/018019.
Women globally are also most vulnerable to catching and transmitting COVID-19 as they make up 70 percent of front-line health care and social workers.
In Lebanon, women make up 80 percent of the country’s registered nurses, increasing their risk of exposure to the virus.
“Fifteen nurses have been infected by the coronavirus, all of them are women,” Myrna Abi Abdallah Doumit, president of the Order of Nurses, told The Daily Star.
“Nurses have not been receiving their proper salaries for months, but they are still putting themselves at risk,” Doumit said.
Lebanon so far has confirmed a total number of 391 coronavirus infections, and seven deaths resulting from the disease.
As the fight against COVID-19 is set to continue over the coming weeks, the U.N.’s Dore-Weeks noted that the crisis would impact everyone and was not exclusively about gender issues.
“The [Lebanese] government is considering economic stimulus and social protection packages that are important to mitigate these effects, and in these there must be provisions that take into account the gendered impact of the crisis,” Dore-Weeks said.
“This could include paid leave for those unable to come to work because they are taking care of children or elders at home. ”