An article on domestic violence in Lebanon focusing on the vulnerability of refugee women, published in Al-Akhbar English in February 2014.
Domestic violence has found itself in the past year regularly in Lebanese headlines, as the tragic stories of Roula Yacoub and, more recently, Fatima al-Nashar, have stirred public opinion in support of a draft law which would criminalize domestic violence.
But while the bill is hailed by many women’s rights activists as a decisive step, some of the most vulnerable women in the country are still desperately exposed to abuse with little to no legal recourse.
Although the law, which still hasn’t been voted on by parliament, would extend to all victims of domestic abuse on Lebanese soil, access to judicial or police protection remains far too often a taboo and potentially life-threatening for many women belonging to marginalized communities, including Palestinian and Syrian refugees.
H., a 30-year-old Syrian woman who fled the conflict in 2013, said her husband had become increasingly violent since their arrival in Lebanon, hitting her and breaking furniture in the one-room apartment they share with their six children.
“If the house is unintentionally messy, if dinner is not ready or if one of the children is not properly dressed, he says I am failing my responsibilities as a woman,” the former hairdresser said.
A., a 29-year-old Palestinian refugee from Lebanon, faced a similar situation. Her husband used to beat her and have extramarital affairs, and her family showed little understanding to her plight.
“I used to go back to my parents’ house often, but every time I would go they would send me back,” she recalled. “My father used to defend my husband, man to man, because of our children. He would shut me up.”
“I wanted to kill myself,” A. added, saying that she attempted suicide four years ago because of her failing relationship with her husband.
For many women, even thinking about contacting the police is out of question, both due to its social unacceptability and practical implications. Far too often, domestic violence is perceived as a private matter, or even dismissed as a joke.
A counselor who has worked with H. since December said that although she considers H.’s situation to be potentially fatal, the Syrian woman has refused to be referred to a lawyer. According to this counselor, many women decline to press charges against their abuser.
“If I go to the police station and my husband goes to jail, who can provide for my family?” H. asked rhetorically. Since coming to Lebanon, her children have not been enrolled in school, making it impossible for her to work and gain some financial independence from her husband.
Even though A. has been working with a psychologist and a counselor for almost a year to resolve her family issues and become better informed of her rights, she still doesn’t see security forces as an option for her.
“I wouldn’t go to the police station. If I went, they would say it’s a personal matter,” she said. She added that she would prefer to go through a legal process with a lawyer, but only if an NGO was at her side.
This feeling of helplessness is intensified for refugee women, who feel that they are less entitled to protection than their Lebanese peers. “In general, Syrians in Lebanon do not have rights. And if you are a woman on top of that …” H. trailed off.
Buthaina Saad, who coordinates the violence against women program for Palestinian refugee rights NGO Najdeh, agreed.
“The same level of domestic violence applies for Palestinian and Lebanese women, as well as all Arab women,” she said. “But what’s different is that Lebanese women may have more courage to ask for their rights because they are in their country.”
“Being a woman refugee is in itself marginalization and violence,” Saad added.
“Even if this law comes into effect, there’s always this access problem for Palestinian refugees, women and girls always being a particularly vulnerable group within the existing vulnerability of the Palestinian refugees,” UNRWA gender protection coordinator Helene Skaardal toldAl-Akhbar.
Skaardal cited lack of mobility, economic limitations, and lack of legal knowledge as some of the main factors impeding many women, whether Palestinian, Syrian, or Lebanese, from seeking help.
The neighboring conflict has exacerbated issues of gender-based violence for many Syrian women, as the anxieties of life as refugees tend to lead to higher levels of domestic violence. In January, the United Nations revealed that it had helped 38,000 people dealing with sexual assault and gender-based violence inside Syria in 2013.
“Gender-based violence has become a new hidden dimension of the Syrian conflict,” Skaardal said, who noted that domestic violence could be a “negative coping mechanism” for some in dire economic or social situations.
“We have to talk on an anecdotal basis because data is hard to come about, but with any conflict, with any emergency setting, we know that gender-based violence is generally a consequence – a consequence that is often extremely hidden.”
KAFA, an NGO focusing on gender-based violence, estimates than one woman dies every month on average in Lebanon because of domestic violence. Lebanon is home to around four million people.
KAFA Communication Coordinator Maya Ammar told Al-Akhbar that the organization has started training Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces to deal with victims of violence and offer them advice and protection.
Before this partnership, Ammar said, “there was very little awareness in the ISF [of issues surrounding domestic violence], just like in the rest of Lebanese society.”
Whilst the domestic violence bill that so many women desperately need languishes in parliament, many women need even more protection than this law could ever provide.
“I feel like my life is a cassette that keeps repeating itself,” H. said. “I want to live a human life.”