Negative impact of COVID-19 on family peace

19 April 2020

The second webinar organized by Kemet Boutros Boutros Ghali Foundation (BBGF) in collaboration with Al- Ahram Establishment, focused on discussing the impact of the lockdown imposed by countries around the world because of COVID- 19 pandemic, on “Family Peace”.

The BBGF Chairman Mamdouh Abbas said that the pandemic will have lasting effects on families… “No one will get out of it unhurt. And thus the elite and the intellectuals should play a vital role in such circumstances.” In addition to exacerbating fear, anxiety, and financial stress, COVID-19 has challenged the ability of health and social services to connect with and support victims of violence, he added. The scarcity of community resources has set the stage for an exacerbated domestic violence. Many victims find themselves isolated in violent homes, without access to resources or friend and family networks.

“Family peace is also determined by the economic situation which has become a burden to most families. Almost 35% of the work force are women who have been confined to their homes. We should discuss several reservations as far as the policies put in place to protect women and means of lending a helping hand especially to young girls,” Abbas said.

According Ambassador Dr. Moushira Khattab, BBGF Executive President, people worldwide have been told by authorities to stay home to reduce the transmission of coronavirus, but social isolation and domestic quarantine can deepen relationships between family members, intensifying intimacy, personal ties and previous behaviors, thus becoming a period of emotional growth for all involved.

On the other hand, it is known that most violence against women is perpetrated by family members, and in times of crisis and during epidemics, the number of cases tends to increase. In domestic spaces where this “invisible monster” lives, a range of violations can occur, including intimate partner violence and domestic homicide, Ambassador Khattab explained.

Thus, the quarantine forced vulnerable people to share space with their abusers which is a cause for social alert. Ambassador Khattab referred to the statement made by the UN Secretary- General Antonio Guterres, when he said that “Women are not safe in their own homes because they are trapped with abusive partners.” He urged all Governments to make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans. Over 140 Governments have supported this call.

The distorted dynamics of power in the homes of abusive or controlling individuals can easily intensify during this crisis, since the abuser has more freedom to act, while the victim’s movement is restricted, and continued exposure limits the victim’s capacity to cope or seek help.

The increase in interpersonal violence during times of crisis are well documented. But wide underreporting has made response and data gathering a challenge with less than 40 per cent of women who experience violence seeking any help or reporting the crime, Ambassador Khattab said. Of those women who do seek help, less than 10 per cent go to the police.

In the United Kingdom, calls, emails and website visits, and the national domestic violence charity, have increased 97 per cent, 185 per cent and 581 per cent respectively, Dr. Khattab said. Quoting, Phemzil Malambo- Ncocka, UN under- secretary- general Executive Director for women, as saying that the “invisible pandemic” of domestic violence during the COVID-19 crisis is a “perfect storm”, Dr. Khattab stressed the urgent need to address the subject.

There are more than four billion people who have been almost under siege because of the pandemic, Ambassador Khattab said, adding that officials and the general public are now more aware of an invisible pandemic, and the connection between physical insecurity and the economic insecurity is suddenly more evident for people who might otherwise have been less aware of the ongoing domestic violence, therefore family peace has come to the fore.

Ambassador Khattab believes that women in the Middle East have similar stories to tell and that Dr. Moaaz Dureid, Regional Director of UN Women, can highlight the dimensions of the problem in this region. Dr. Dureid said that almost more than half of the world population have come under strict measures of lockdown because of the pandemic which has practically put two billion women in some kind of house arrest with their abusers. At the same time, this pandemic has the potential to continue to marginalize domestic violence survivors in dire need of support amid what could become the greatest global economic crisis in modern history. For survivors, especially those who are marginalized or underserved, the pandemic could reinforce their mistrust in formal systems and keep them further afar. Repairing those relationships would be an enormous challenge that would require an overhaul of conventional approaches and policies, he explained.

Governments, NGOs, and the private sector need to incorporate a human rights and gender lens into all of their COVID-19 responses and funding structures to address this new reality. According to Dureid, the Eastern Mediterranean Region has the second highest prevalence of violence against women (37%) worldwide. This is due to structural systems that maintain gender inequalities at different levels of the society, doubled with political crises and socioeconomic instability in the region. Initial information from two countries report an increase of 50-60% of cases, based on survivors’ calls for help to women organizations’ hotlines… “In Tunis, calls asking for help increased five times, while in Lebanon the figure shot up to nearly 60%. Meantime in Egypt, the hotline run by the “Women National Council”, which received 4500 calls last October and December 2019, received 5500 in March 2020,” Dureid added.

Dealing with the increasing issues of domestic violence is part and parcel of many UN organizations and several speakers will shed light on that, ambassador Khattab said. Naeila Gabr, Head of the UN committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, said that special consideration should be given to more vulnerable groups, including women living in rural areas, who are at increased risk of domestic violence and may face further barriers in reaching the services they are in dire need, such as social assistance and home care, due to curfews and social distancing or restrictions on movement. The women who speak up mostly turn to their families and friends rather than the police. The lack of effective judicial response to their accusations contributes to their discouragement, she added.

Family peace is not only about women but children have also come under stress, as Ambassador Khattab said. Therefore, Amal El- Dousary, an expert at the UN Committee on the Right of the Child, highlighted children’s agony during the lockdown. She expressed concern over the psychological health of children during this period. “Children are deprived from meeting friends, playing outside, visiting grandparents, at the same time feeling the heat of economic uncertainty. Such environment could easily make them victims of violence and abuse,” she said. The pandemic has also brought a new challenge to children with schools closing its doors. The new online- educational approach adopted by governments has made it difficult for poor children especially girls to have access to such services, she lamented. The problem is that most families will find it easier for their daughters to drop out of the school system… “Even in the most developed economies, access to educational services through the internet proved to be a dilemma,” Dousary said.

Mohamed Fayeq, member of BBGF board of Trustees and Head of the National Council for Human Rights, said that what has been mentioned earlier is well- connected to issues of human rights. As a long time human rights official and advocate, Fayeq pointed to the urgent need for government to re- open the economy and for the production process to be accelerated. Governments should shoulder part of the heavy economic burden of the lockdown which negatively affected several sectors of the society. He added that the pandemic has shown the vulnerability of the concept of globalization… “The inter-dependence and shared responsibility have gone with the winds of the pandemic because each and every country around the globe has to close its borders and confront the virus depending on its own resources.”

However, Fayeq hailed the hectic efforts exerted by the medical teams globally and especially in countries with weak health system. “Despite of all odds, they have been standing at the frontline of this confrontation trying hard to mitigate the threat of COVID 19,” he said.

But, the trust extended to UN organizations are yet to be discussed. Ambassador Khattab quoted US President Donald Trump as saying that the World Health Organization (WHO) has gone along with China which pays only five percent of the organization’s budget when the United States pays 15%. The issue of mistrust was referred by Ambassador Khattab to Amr Mousa, Former Secretary of the Arab League and member of BBGF board of Trustee, for further discussion.

Mousa in turn raised an important issue for the UN officials to consider. He said that pandemics, climate change and demographic changes should be put at the top of the United Nations’ priorities. Mousa believes that those issues should be seen within the context of threatening the world peace and security by the UN Charter. “Time has come to expand the scope of the current charter to include new threats that had not been recognized earlier as challenges to humanity.” Yet, to confront such challenges members of the UN security council should not have the right to veto the decisions of the world body. The UN General Assembly has also been plagued by mobilization which had its toll on the process of decision- making, he said.

On the issue of domestic violence, Mousa who led a team of distinguished intellectuals in Egypt to bring to light the 2014 constitution, said that women in Egypt should fight for the rights bestowed to them by the constitution and put that into effect.

According to the Egyptian constitution of 2014, violence against women is mentioned in Article 11 “…The State shall protect women against all forms of violence and ensure enabling women to strike a balance between family duties and work requirements…”

However, domestic violence is still tolerated by many in Egypt. For that reason, it is important that the concept of ‘domestic violence’ includes the different interpretations coming from the legal and policy contexts, service provision and the community itself. Mousa called upon officials to conduct surveys covering the past three months to scientifically observe the surge of domestic violence, the number of divorce cases and the fertility rate. Such studies will show the impact of the lockdown on women, children and men, and will also work if extended for a year, as a base to understand the era of post COVID- 19, Mousa added.

Ambassador Khattab introduced Dr. Hoda Badran who has a long experience in children rights as the president of UN Child Human Rights Committee in Geneva which conducted the guidelines for countries around the world to be able to present their reports on children status. Badran, who is also the President of Egypt Women Federation, highlighted the connection between the local and international repercussions of the lockdown imposed because of the COVID- 19. She said that the global economic system is characterized by violence and discrimination where several countries and communities are marginalized. “Members of the UN security council are the world’s producers of arms and destructive military stockpiles. Weapons are not sold for development but for destruction and the Arab countries has become the hub for such strategy,” she added. The women federation launched a campaign calling for better health and development services. The current international system as described by Dr. Badran should be changed because of its violent nature which has been transmitted from the international level to the local environment. To achieve a more peaceful and secure environment for women and children in Egypt, Dr. Badran said that women’s rights as stated by the 2014 constitution should be translated into effective laws and legal procedures to protect them. “We should also work on analyzing the data collected through the hotlines’ complaints, courts and police reports to get scientifically proven results on how it looks like at local households during the pandemic,” But, Dr. Badran also pointed to the fact that there are several positive impact of the lockdown… “We have also seen men helping their wives at home and spending more time with their children and taking pride of that,” she said.

Ambassador Khattab as the former minister of family and Population, was the first to propose and fight for establishing hotlines for children, women and special- needs to file complaints against their abusers… “In 2003 the society hardly welcomed the step. There was great resistance on the popular and the official levels. However, the hotlines proved vital especially when connected with a network of services that support, help and shelter the abused,” Dr. Khattab said. Currently, the mounting data suggests that domestic abuse is acting like an infection, flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic. The first quarter of 2020 has seen a drastic increase in the number of calls received by the National Council for Motherhood and Childhood’s hotline, Sabri Othman, the council’s Director of Child Security Hotline, said. The hotline received 74 calls of domestic violence, 974 complains of child abuse, 843 cases of sexual abuse, in addition to court cases.

Suspension of courts has also hindered the implementation of previous rulings that were in favor of women’s rights, such as cases of inheritance, alimony, marital residence, and others, which further exacerbates violence against women, Sabri said. Lawyers are also left helpless with the delay and suspension of court sessions. In other cases, where the woman is unable to bear the costs of cases and attorney’s fees, they are advised to go to the National Council for Women, which hears complaints through the hotline (15115) and the Women’s Complaints office.

Limited services aside, women are not well- acquainted with such limited resources as Ambassador Khattab said. Dr. Fatma Khafagy, of the Arab Women Associations, agreed on that, saying most women in Egypt hardly know about the hotlines and the services offered… “We should acknowledge the presence of a serious problem especially with the restrictive measures imposed because of COVID- 19. Most women hardly report or make calls because they don’t feel safe enough to do that.” The inefficiency of the services offered has added to the problem and thus full coordination between the government and civil society is the only way to help women and children. But, most women associations are lagging behind because of funding especially when it comes to offering shelters. According to Dr. Khafagy, shelters should be established by governments but run by civil society organizations which have well- trained members capable of handling women abused by their partners both socially and psychologically. Khafagy believes that Arab governments should strive to abide by the international standards which calls for shelters for every 100.000 women and 10.000 hotlines.

However, ambassador Khattab believes that the media role is essential especially when it comes to enhancing and promoting peoples’ awareness of each family member’s rights. Dr. Khattab said that promoting family peace is part and parcel of enhancing the society’s peace as a whole. For that the webinar invited a good number of media people to highlight the media stand on the issue. But, media seems to be torn between the social and health pandemic, as Dr. Houweida Moustafa, Dean of Mass Media school at Cairo University, said. What she described as the ‘media of crises’ has come to the fore though lacking scientific measures. “It all depends on the reporters’ awareness of their role, deep knowledge of the issues they cover and the needs of their readers,” Dr. Moustafa lamented. The need to put down a clear cut media strategy when it comes to presenting a rounded- out coverage of crises has come to the fore. Dr. Moustafa believes that local media played a vital role as far as the peoples ‘awareness’ of the pandemic and the measures taken to protect. With clear cut coordination between the government and the media outlets, people throughout the country got the message and media has become an essential partner in most of the government, NGOs and businesses in delivering the right message at the right time.

However, the economic consequences of the lockdown and the repercussions of women being trapped in their homes with abusive partners are yet to be highlighted, Dr. Moustafa said. Media should exert more efforts in creating the culture of social peace and security, the concept of tolerance and accepting the other… “What we are looking for now is the lost opportunities. There are several sectors of the society that have been marginalized during this crisis. Media people should focus on concepts of discrimination, violence and the constitutional rights of both women and children. Creating this culture is what we call the developmental role of the media, she added. Moustafa pointed to the several initiatives supporting ‘science and health media’ which should not put to rest once the pandemic is over, but that should be extended to cover different types of media coverage,” Dr. Moustafa said.

Amal Fawzy, Chief Editor of ‘Nesf el- Donia’; a women magazine published by Al- Ahram establishment, said the magazine has been working on several issues that entail violence among family members. The magazine has been focusing on women issues in general and especially those who have been targeted by abusive partners. During the lockdown, the magazine reported an increase in the number of divorce cases as well as violence targeting women. “What is needed now is more than press reports. We need scientific analysis of the data and more professional handling of the cases reported to the police or the hotlines,” Fawzy said.

Hany Asal, Deputy News- editor of Al- Ahram daily, pointed to the issue of the old-aged. Under the restrictive measures imposed because of the pandemic, many of the old- aged found themselves with no care taker. “Many of them are isolated, scared and with no access to proper health care,” Asal said. Lack of statistics and means of health care approaching the elderly have been an issue that should be dealt with by the government and the civil society.


Arabic version