As we commemorate the #16 Days of Activism campaign for yet another year, it is clear that no time should be lost in taking comprehensive and concrete action against the many forms of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) still perpetrated in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
Sadly, it will come as no surprise that GBV places women and girls in MENA particularly at risk, though not exclusively so. Proximity is a major factor, with Intimate Partner Violence shown to be a common form of GBV, as well as violence within families, including against children and adolescents. At least 35% of women in MENA have experienced some form of violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime – placing MENA second highest in the world. In all probability, even this figure is highly underestimated, given that gender-based violence goes greatly underreported everywhere.
The MENA region of the World Bank has decided to integrate its GBV prevention and response into a comprehensive plan of action. GBV has devastating effects on the health and well-being of individuals and societies. As a source of psychological and physical trauma, it is also costly for economies, affecting the human capital of survivors, labor market participation and civic activity. Before COVID-19, it was estimated that in some countries, GBV cost up to 3.7% of GDP , more than double what many governments spent on education.
GBV takes a surprising and shocking variety of forms in addition to intimate partner violence: non-partner sexual violence, sexual exploitation and abuse, trafficking, femicide, child and early marriage, female genital mutilation/cutting, sexual harassment, and cyber GBV. About 18% of girls are married before the age of 18 in MENA, especially in rural areas. In Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya and Syria, perpetrators are still exonerated if they marry the woman or girl they have raped or assaulted.
Specific marginalized groups, such as forcibly displaced persons and migrant domestic workers, are particularly vulnerable to non-partner violence. In Jordan, 28% of Syrian refugee women experience psychological abuse and 29% physical assault. In Bahrain, 30% to 40% of attempted suicides are by foreign female domestic workers subjected to verbal, physical, and/or sexual abuse. In many countries, divorced or separated women, single mothers, and women and girls living on the street face exploitation and abuse.
As a category, femicides (the killing of women) are overlooked and there are no nationally representative statistics on their prevalence. Acceptance of so-called “honor killings” is high in the region as in Egypt where 62% of men and 49% of women agree with the practice as do 32% of men and 12% of women in Morocco, and 26% and 8% in Lebanon. Sentencing for perpetrators is often lenient.
Conflict-affected and fragile contexts as well as COVID-19 exacerbate risks and limit response
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the prevalence of GBV worse, while reducing survivors’ access to services due to mobility restrictions, rising tensions in households, and shifts in social safety nets. Economic repercussions of the crisis contribute to negative coping mechanisms, including transactional sex or child marriages. In West Bank and Gaza, one in four phone survey respondents indicated that domestic violence increased during the lockdown. In Lebanon, Bahrain, Tunisia, and Iraq, GBV hotlines have experienced spikes in the numbers of reported GBV cases.
Challenges are even more acute in fragile and conflict contexts, where levels of sexual violence and forced marriage are higher still, and the services dealing with them, disrupted. In Iraq, during relatively recent periods of conflict, women, girls, men, and boys were subjected to rape and sexual enslavement, physical and psychological violence, and human trafficking. Girls and women captured by ISIS were forced into marriage, sexual slavery, and domestic servitude, and often continue to be stigmatized in their communities. In Syria, reports of the rape of women rose sharply, from 300 in 2011 to 6,000 in 2013.
Launching a Regional Action Plan to Address GBV
With the liberty and the responsibility to be bold in preventing and addressing GBV, the World Bank MENA region is launching an Action Plan to tackle GBV head-on by focusing on three of our operational pillars: (i) data and knowledge, (ii) policy dialogue, and (iii) operational engagement.
Examples of our work in these areas already exist. Sex-disaggregated data and analysis of child marriage is included in the Yemen Human Capital and Gender Assessment. The Mashreq Gender Facility contributed to the passing of a 2020 law against sexual harassment in Lebanon. Several health projects in the region introduce counseling on sexual and reproductive health, family planning, and GBV and aim to increase awareness of GBV risks and services. The recent Egypt Development Policy Financing on Inclusive Growth for Sustainable Recovery also introduces measures to deter GBV on public transport and to support GBV survivors through a One Stop Center.
Our Action Plan presents the prevalence, progress, and gaps in prevention and response to GBV in the 20 countries in our region. It also highlights what types of intervention work best, with efforts to change social norms and behavior integrated throughout. It is always our responsibility to move from analysis to action. Decades after many MENA countries ratified international frameworks to combat violence against women and girls, this Regional Action Plan places this issue at the top of our agenda.
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