BEIRUT: Vulnerable women across Lebanon have been forced to adopt “harmful” coping mechanisms to deal with the country’s deepening economic crisis and political instability, according to a new report. “We are the ones in charge of distributing food, caring about the family’s health, and keeping everyone happy and satisfied ... we feel desperate and we don’t know how to cope and provide for our families.”
That is how one woman from Burj Hammoud described the pressures she is facing as Lebanon slides deeper into its worst economic crisis for decades.
The Humanitarian Impact Assessment was prepared by the Sexual and Gender Based Violence Task Force, a partnership between the U.N., including the U.N. Refugee Agency and U.N. Women, as well as a number of local and international NGOs.
Researchers from the humanitarian groups ABAAD, Care, the Danish Refugee Council and the International Rescue Committee worked together to interview a total of 264 Syrian women and girls and 87 Lebanese women, to understand how their lives had been affected by the country’s precarious circumstances. The names of the women were not provided.
“We know globally that when you have an economic crisis of this magnitude, everyone suffers, but women ... often suffer disproportionately,” explained Rachel Dore-Weeks, the head of U.N. Women’s Lebanon office.
Over the past few months the devaluation of the national currency, reduced availability of essential goods, including medicine, while strict limits on banking activity have forced many of Lebanon’s residents to tighten their purse strings.
However, the most vulnerable communities have been the hardest hit. Many have been forced to resort to measures such as cutting down on the amount of food they eat, taking fewer journeys and even reducing their use of medications.
“I can’t afford to buy milk for my child because of the increased price,” one mother from Tripoli’s Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood said.
Increasingly limited household budgets have meant that many families have had to cut back on domestic help and childcare, which allowed many women to go to work or attend vocational training, Dore-Weeks explained.
Extended school closures in the early weeks of the protests also meant that women had to stay at home to look after children.
In the south Lebanon town of Bint Jbeil, 30 percent of women said that they felt increased pressure in the household to provide food and care for family members.
In some cases, children fell victim to the economic hardships experienced by their families. Some dropped out of school to find paid work or, in the case of girls, to get married earlier.
As financial burdens have increased, most women reported that they had experienced heightened levels of tension at home, resulting in increased reports of domestic violence, both verbal and physical.
However, October saw a drop in the number of people accessing sexual and gender-based violence support services, falling from a monthly average of 5,955 January-September to 3,033.
The report attributed this decrease to competing priorities, and concerns over safety, transport costs and road blockades during protests.
Some women said they had also experienced an erosion of their financial independence. In the Akkar and Bekaa regions, 71 percent of women said that their movement had been restricted by high transport costs and fear of arrest.
While economic pressures and fears of domestic violence were common among both Lebanese and Syrian women, some issues were found to be specific to Syrian participants.
Anti-refugee rhetoric in Lebanon has risen in recent years, intensified by the calls of senior politicians for the immediate return of Syrian refugees to their home country, despite warnings from human rights groups on the ongoing threats that exist there.
Many have also blamed the presence of refugees for the social and economic problems that gave rise to protests in the first place.
One woman said that protesters in Minyeh, north Lebanon, had made anti-Syrian chants such as “Revolution, revolution, Syria out.”
More than half of the Syrian women interviewed said that there has been a clear upward trend in hostility toward them. Some reported that they had encountered increased harassment and verbal insults. Some had even experienced financial extortion or robbery. In Akkar, a number said that local residents had prevented Syrian children from going to school.
In Bekaa, as many as 83 percent of those interviewed said they had either heard of, or personally been the victim of racially motivated assaults. Rising tensions and an increasingly visible military presence since the outbreak of mass protests in October have for many Syrian women and girls acted as a reminder of the civil war in their home country.
Some feared that the nationwide uprising could escalate into widespread violence.
“We have seen this happening before. This is how [it] all started in Syria,” one woman from Jbeil said.
Despite the undeniably gloomy outlook for Lebanon’s most at-risk communities, many women viewed the protests positively.
Women have consistently been at the forefront of demonstrations, often inserting themselves between protesters and security forces, in efforts to keep the peace.
“It is clear these women are key political actors in these protests, with their own specific grievances,” Dore-Weeks said.
Both Syrian and Lebanese women in Mount Lebanon said they felt the demonstrations “gave women more opportunities to express their opinions openly.”
“Now, we have an opportunity to at least change something. And we can express [our demands] freely,” one woman said.