Many social media followers in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) would recognize names such as Israa Ghrayeb from Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), or Al-Anoud Sheryan from Yemen or Tara Fares from Iraq. These are young women in their twenties who were disfigured or killed by a family member or an intimate partner.
Their stories shocked people and devastated women rights activist across the region. Violence against women and girls is a common phenomenon in MENA. It is estimated that at least 37% of Arab women have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime. There are indicators that the percentage might be higher.
In a region that is characterized by patriarchal societies, oppressive governments and shrinking civic space, women are victimized every day with little governmental and institutional support, broken referral systems, lack of suitable and affordable services and a huge barrier of social norms and stigmatization of anyone who dares to raise their voice against violence against women.
While the different conflicts in the MENA have different actors and contexts, there is more in common about the experiences of women than one might consider. The lack of accurate statistics or studies about the cost of violence, weak legal framework, harmful social norms, multi-layered oppression, inequality in access to resources, lack of service and many other issues. Adding to the historical challenges of gender-based violence (GBV) in the region there are more persistent challenges in conflict-affected countries.
Baseline studies conducted within Naseej project show that conflicts add more layers of oppression because while they affect all members of society including civilians and the military, they affect women and girls even more. They increase the level of violence as well as the acceptance of violent actions in a society. However, women and girls suffering from violence is not seen as an issue or a priority when the whole society is devastated.
During conflicts there are major changes in gender norms. Women find themselves responsible for the upkeep and care for their families, pushing them to new roles that would not normally be accepted by societies. Men’s traditional roles are challenged with limited economic opportunities and militarization measures that include restriction of movement and dealing with a fragile and unpredicted political economy of the conflict. These challenges leave their masculinity severely affected and toxic.
Conflicts weaken existing government structures including social protection, police and justice system, leaving a vacuum for increased criminality and a bigger role for traditional and tribal justice systems. In any case women and girls are the most disadvantaged.
Conflicting parties take advantage of women and girls, use harmful social norms to blackmail women or their relatives from opposition parties, and use violence against women as a tool of war. Conflicts generally intensify existing harmful practices such as child marriage, human trafficking and transactional sex.
The Covid-19 pandemic added yet another layer to these multiple challenges. While the guns were not silenced during the pandemic, restriction of movements, lockdowns and closures meant that women could not reach any kind of support they had available before. New and more violent forms of violence emerged, and older forms intensified.
However, in recent years and certainly during the pandemic, women in the region realized more than ever the importance of coming together and building a united front to face all types of violence and oppression. Young feminist activists in MENA are finding their voice and agency to challenge the shadow pandemic as well as the social norms and practices that re-generates gender-based violence.
A newly formed Arab Feminist NGO Network chose violence against women as the main focus of advocacy and activism. Formal and informal youth groups are emerging to address GBV in a more daring and outspoken manner. Groups in Egypt are breaking ground by shaming the harassers in a localized version of #MeToo global campaign. Takatoat, a youth feminist group in Jordan is framing its first public campaign around “we believe the survivors”.
In OPT, the young feminist group Talaat, did not only protest the death of Israa Ghrayeb but also challenged the older feminist ways of work, demanding for more results and immediate reforms. Women, peace and security activists in Yemen demand a space on the table and link their participation to their daily struggles with all forms of GBV.
What is common across all groups is uncovering secrecy and silence culture and moving GBV from the private sphere to the public sphere, naming the issues and refusing any dismissal of the importance to act immediately.
Addressing GBV in conflict is the focus of Naseej – a multi-country program that aims to support the collective efforts for women organizations in the region, bringing NGOs at the national level in closer coordination to provide meaningful services using a survivor-centered approach. Naseej and work to challe harmful social norms at community levelm advocate for legal reform, better access to justice and quality services to be provided by government and to hold different actors accountable to ensure protection of women and girls in conflict zones.
At the same time and since all women in the region are in this together, the project provides opportunities for exchange, networking and amplifying women voices, ensuring no one is left behind. The project through research and regional advocacy will address the issue of lack of statistics and detailed information about the prevalence of GBV in the region, especially in Iraq, OPT and Yemen.
These efforts are informed by the feminist activist groups in MENA and sending a message to all women in the region that you not alone. We are all in it together.